Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop, by Carol Sheban

Nine stars

Late on the evening of October 19, 1984, Wapiti Air Flight 402 crashed into a bunch of trees, outside High Prairie, Alberta. Of the ten passengers on board, one was Larry Shaben, father of the author. In this information-packed book, Shaben explores not only the crash that kill six passengers, but also offers a detailed exploration of the four men who survived—Larry Shaben, a politician; Erik Vogel, the pilot; Scott Deschamps, RCMP officer transporting a prisoner; and Paul Archambault, the prisoner. Shaben cuts right to the chase and discusses the night of the crash, where Vogel miscalculated High Prairie’s landing strip, going on to document the fourteen hours the survivors spent in a snowstorm, waiting for military Search and Rescue to locate them. While this would surely make a sensational book on its own, Shaben goes further, sketching out the history of Wapiti Air and its problematic flight record, the fallout of the crash that led to Transport Canada to strip Wapiti of its operating licence for a time, and the guilt Vogel felt for having been at the yoke. Offering snapshot biographies of the survivors up to twenty years later, as well as the pall of the deaths of those who perished, Shaben pulls no punches as she tries to offer a 360 degree exploration, without pointing fingers or offering vilification. Perhaps most interesting of all is the epiphany that Deschamps underwent in the years after the event. Veiled in his own secret struggles, Deschamps came out of the event the most scarred and lost, as Shaben discusses throughout. While no loss of life can be deemed insignificant, the crash of Wapiti Air Flight 402 hit home for many, shaping the lives of ten family irreparably. That Shaben can present this horror in such a well-rounded manner speaks volumes and is indicative as to the calibre of her writing. While it is hard to offer a recommendation for this book, I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject matter to locate this book and learn so much in short order.

It is surely not an easy thing to tackle such an emotional subject, but Carol Shaben does it in a professional manner. Her personal investment in the story is obvious from the outset, as Shaben explains how she was in the Middle East and read a small article that hit the international wires. To offer a succinct, yet thorough, context to the events allows the reader to educate themselves without being bogged down in minutiae. Through detailed interviews and document retrieval, Shaben is able to develop a strong foundation that keeps the book progressing nicely. While it is impossible to ignore the six who died (particularly when one was Grant Notley), Shaben does not dwell on them, choosing instead to develop a story to explore how the crash changed the lives of the four men who were rescued. Being sufficiently dramatic in parts, without turning things into a sob story, the author pulls the reader in and keeps their attention throughout. One miscalculation led to a domino reaction, but who’s to blame, if anyone?

Kudos, Madam Shaben, for such an impactful story that pulls the reader in from the outset. I know someone who was personally impacted by these events and I could not have asked for a more professional presentation, weighing information against the need for privacy.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: