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Accidental Fortunes

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Serendipity - Accidental Fortunes

My name is Jack Davidson. I am a thirty-two-year-old marine biologist. Right now, I am standing knee deep in washed up vegetation and debris on a beach in Northern Sumatra in Indonesia. Looking inland I see destruction and despair, the results of a massive storm that battered this coast just over three weeks ago. In my hand are two pieces of paper, one is a note with the words, “Thank You,” the other a cheque for $20 000. This is the story leading up to this moment.

On Monday 18 August 2014, Michael Taylor boarded a flight from Brisbane, Australia, to Jakarta, Indonesia. As Michael settled into his predictably booked window seat, he instinctively started scanning the surrounds, internal and external. Any cracks on his window? Any loose fittings? Did the luggage handler close the luggage bay doors correctly? He never did see sense in listening to the in-flight safety procedure. If this piece of heavy metal were to fall out of the sky, it would be game over anyway. Quite obviously Michael hated flying.

Michael is a thirty-five-year-old professional surveyor, specializing in high resolution scanning and modelling of objects in 3D. He and his wife Haley are expecting their first child. Michael is part of a team of six — comprising a surveyor, three paleontologists and two geologists — tasked with investigating the discovery of some fossils and bone fragments found by farmers on Great Nicobar Island, the southernmost point of India. Some surmise the great Sumatra Earthquake in December 2010 may have disturbed the ground thus exposing the fossils and the bones.

Being the adventurous sort, Michael did not hesitate to accept this challenge, even if it meant feeling anxious on the flights over to Great Nicobar Island. Before boarding the flight in Brisbane, Michael stopped in at the news agency to buy a few items and a notebook. The notebook was essential for keeping records and doodling. He found his favorite one, the A5 Moleskine Sketchbook. Michael knew when his electronic devices ran out of battery life, this little black notebook became the keeper of all things important.

After takeoff, Michael took out the notebook. He completed the first pages inserting his contact details, contact numbers and emergency contact details. He then flipped to the back page. He retrieved a few bits of folded paper and a photograph of Haley from his shirt pocket and transferred all but the photograph into the back sleeve of the Moleskine cover. Safely stored and hidden from sight, these items would not fall out because of the tight fit. Then to pass the time, Michael decided to draw a sketch of Hayley using the small photo. Looking at her face gave him comfort and was just the distraction he needed.

Before he knew it, the cabin crew gave instructions to prepare for landing in Jakarta. Michael stored the photo of Haley safely in the back page sleeve of the notebook. He then placed the notebook into a heavy-duty Zip Lock plastic bag, essential to keep things dry in tropical regions where both the humidity and rain are extreme.

The transfer at Jakarta Airport was remarkably seamless. Michael and the rest of the team gathered all the equipment and baggage, boarded the transfer bus, and headed over to the light aircraft standing area. This leg of the journey, from Jakarta to Campbell Bay Airport on the Great Nicobar Island, required the use of a chartered 19-Seater Turbo Prop aircraft. It was to be a four-hour flight. Walking across the runway, the wind seemed to be getting stronger and the skies darker. As Michael settled into his seat, he overhead of the geologists saying something about a storm alert for Northern Sumatra.

Those words made Michael feel uneasy. Once again he needed a distraction so Michael busied himself on his laptop, reviewing the project documents. The first two hours in the air were surprisingly comfortable, albeit a bit noisy with a turbo prop cranking away outside his window. Then things started to rapidly deteriorate. There was a loud crack, sounding like a gunshot and the feeling of something hitting the plane on the outside. The ride was getting progressively rougher. It wasn’t long before the pilot announced there was no cause for alarm, the noise they heard was just the sound of ice breaking off the wings and hitting the side of the plane. Michael had experienced this once, while flying in a similar plane from the Northern Territory to Brisbane. Although he knew it was not too threatening, he was getting a little anxious.

Soon it became too uncomfortable to work on the laptop. He stowed it away, placed the Zip Lock bag containing the notebook into the pouch of the seat in front, fastened his seatbelt, put on his noise cancelling headphones, swallowed two sleeping pills and sat back with his eyes closed. The flight was getting more turbulent by the minute. Michael did not hear the pilot announce that due to a heavy storm ahead, he intended to alter the flight path slightly to skirt the building stormfront. As Michael drifted off, the pilot requested everyone to remain seated with their seatbelts fastened as there was turbulence ahead.

A massive impact shattered Michael’s sleep and for a few seconds he was violently thrown around like a rag doll. Something cracked him on the temple, and he lost consciousness. Michael woke to water streaming onto his face, and the smell of heated metal. He was lying on the floor between two seats and his left leg felt like it was on fire. He called out for help with no response. Suddenly he realized what had happened. Above him, the roof of the plane was missing, and the torrential rain was pouring into the fuselage of the wrecked plane. He shouted out the names of the rest of the team, but there was no response. There seemed to be a river flowing through the plane washing debris, boxes, and baggage out through a gaping hole where the tail used to be. Using all his strength, Michael dragged himself free of the wreckage and crawled up onto higher ground where he again lost consciousness.

As Michael Taylor was boarding his flight from Brisbane to Jakarta, I was standing on the beach at Pantai Sawang, Northern Sumatra, looking out over the shallow coral reef thriving below the crystal-clear water. I was here to complete my PHD in Coral Aquaculture.

Coral aquaculture, also known as coral farming, is the cultivation of corals for reef restoration. Coral reefs are dying around the world, and aquaculture is showing promise as a tool for restoring coral reefs.

Looking inland, I could see the purpose-built nursery we used to house the many small corals we propagated and then replanted on the reef. Our achievements filled me with pride. With help from the local community and leaders, we had successfully expanded the beautiful coral gardens growing off this piece of paradise.

Along with the sense of achievement, was an uneasy feeling of anxiety, knowing our time, along with funding for the project, was coming to an end. There was also a sense of fear as I looked at the dark buildup of clouds on the horizon. The Indonesian Weather Bureau had issued a severe weather warning for a storm heading towards Northern Sumatra. With a sense of urgency, I rallied the small team together and headed for the nursery office at Pantai Sawang to collect our Emergency-Storm Checklist.

The darkening sky, flashes of lightning and the deep growl of thunder in the distance, were evidence enough that this force was advancing towards our vulnerable village. The village locals had stood against many of these storms and provided a comforting presence as they skillfully showed me how to secure and tie down anything that could be swept away, including stowing items that could become unguided missiles in the strong winds. The evening weather report predicted a category 4 storm approaching the North Sumatra Coast and the advice was to seek safety in the cyclone shelters for the next 24 Hours.

Two days passed before we could leave the emergency cyclone shelter to assess the damage done by the storm. The coastal village had taken a massive hit. Thankfully the torrential rain had abated, and the clouds were breaking up to reveal pockets of blue sky. The storm had destroyed half the nursery coral tables and the wooden hut that served as the office. Large tree branches had washed up onto the beach after dragging over a newly planted piece of coral reef. It was a heartbreaking sight, and I knew our dwindling funds would not get this project back on track.

Looking up the coastline, I could see what seemed to be a chair washed up onto the beach. As I approached the chair lying on its side, I noticed a plastic bag lying up against a large piece of driftwood. For a scientist, plastic in the ocean is like a red flag to an angry bull. As I picked up the plastic bag, I saw it contained a black notebook. I tucked it under my arm and inspected the washed-up chair. I instantly recognized it as an aircraft seat and thought, “this can’t be good”.

I scanned the ocean and the beach for any signs of wreckage or survivors. I rushed back to the cyclone shelter where someone told me a light aircraft, on route to Campbell Bay airport with eight people on board, was missing. Emergency services had received an emergency beacon signal in the vicinity of the Mt Leuser National Park, about 40 kilometers away from our village, and immediately mobilized a search and rescue team. The Alas River was running high washing vegetation and debris from the plane into the river estuary and onto the beaches.

I sat on my bed in the cyclone shelter and realized there was a tragedy unfolding far worse than the collapse of my coral farm. I removed the black notebook from the bag and read the name of the owner, Michael Taylor. He was one of those listed as missing.

Rescue teams airlifted two survivors found at the crash site to our village for medical attention. Michael was one of the survivors. I briefly met Michael, but he was heavily sedated and in a lot of pain. I wrote a note explaining I had found the small black notebook, and together with my business card, placed them into the Zip lock bag for transportation back to Brisbane with him.

When Michael checked out of hospital, the doctor gave him his medical records, and the Zip Lock bag containing the notebook. A few days later, Michael remembered the notebook. He found the note from me, and from the back sleeve he took out the photo of Haley, the Lotto Ticket and receipt for the purchases he made at the Brisbane Airport News Agency.

Michael had purchased a “Set for Life” Lotto Ticket. The winner receives $20 000 per month for 20 years. Michael punched the Lotto ticket number into the Lotto website and seconds later he was yelling for Haley. They had won the jackpot. It was at that moment he held up my business card and said, “Hayley, you know where the first $20 000 payout is going don’t you?”

fact or fiction
Roland Fernandes
Roland Fernandes
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