Our eldest grandson once dropped a lightning strike in our kitchen. It broke as it hit the table top. Shattered in fact. I’d brought the lightning strike home in a bottle some twenty years before. A plastic bottle, stuffed with toilet paper to protect the delicate lightning strike. An age-old message in a new-age bottle. An untold story found on the shores of a lake dying in an incoming tide of sand. Our ten year-old grandson was very uneasy after the accident, looking in horror at the shards of lightning that lay on the table. It was a lightning strike that had been recorded in sand, its heat creating a vitreous memory with a dendritic shape that mapped the path of the electrical discharge. A very elegant and tactile artefact, a fossilised lightning strike known as a fulgurite. I found this one at the base of very small dune somewhere north of Lake Chad. I’d seen what appeared to be broken twigs lying on the surface. I was curious since I’d not seen any plants for hours and KB stopped the Land Cruiser for a closer look. I’d never seen fulgurites before but I knew of them so maybe this was a lightning strike and worth keeping. Whether recent or older than the ancient trade routes that criss-crossed this desert, who could say. And so I picked it up and it made its way into a just-emptied water bottle after being wrapped in some of the emergency toilet paper we kept in the 4×4. And thence, eventually, it came to Ireland. And for the sake of our grandson, I’m pleased to say that I brought home more than one. And he was relieved to know that too.
I was in the Agadem province in Niger’s Ténéré or eastern Sahara for three trips of about a month each. So remote that the Paris-Dakar rally was redirected there for a time many years later. Mine was a memorable assignment for many reasons, two of which I’m relating here.
A few days after finding the fulgurites, we found a piece of plastic jutting out from the sand. We stopped to recover it since littering was anathema and proscribed by our operating rules. We pulled at it and it was too big and too buried to lift. It was clearly a piece of an airplane. The underside of the overhead bin with holes where the cabin’s fresh air nozzles must have been. There was nothing else to see so we drove on. Over a cleft in a ridge of low dunes and onto a litter field. Broken suitcases. A cluster of brown-covered bibles in French, the pages yellowed and brittle. A cassette player. Odd shoes. Many odd shoes in sizes from infant to large adult male. Flats, heels, boots and sandals. Somehow the footwear told the whole story. We drove further and the litter became debris. The tail of an airliner, an engine at its base confirming it was a DC-10. An enormous piece of paint-faded fuselage. Huge pieces of wing. A burst cockpit. Other surveyor colleagues came out later and determined that the debris was distributed over some 30 km in length and maybe about 1 km wide at its widest.
UTA Flight 772 had been brought down here seven years earlier. This was where 170 people had died. Today you can find and see the more recent memorial on satellite imagery on your phone.
We got used to the remains of the plane being in the area where we worked. Some of the locals working with us recycled seats and washbasins and other items they could repurpose. To put this in context, let me say that one older man from the nearby town of N’Guigmi told me that he was delighted to have a paying job for the second time in his life.
Then something else unpredictable happened. A couple of senior managers came out from Texas and we drove them around the huge area. None of us knew that no one had told them of the UTA wreckage strewn around the area. Imagine their horror when they first saw the tail of the plane. I’m sure we nonchalantly if not blithely remarked that this was the UTA plane despite having been surprised once ourselves. So the second thing we couldn’t have known was that both of these men had friends and colleagues killed on the flight. Not one but both of our visitors had been on assignment in N’Djamena in Chad at the time. One had even driven his closest friend to catch the flight.
One of our visitors climbed into the hold of the plane when he noticed there were still containers inside. A geologist, you cannot imagine the enthusiasm with which he pursued a displacement task that arose because of that inspection. He had found boxes that he had arranged to be shipped to Texas. They were inside and reasonably intact after seven years of detailed investigative crash-site examinations and cursory looting by the few nomads in the region. They were expensive and valuable rock core samples taken from a well drilled in Chad. Needless to say, we collected them and they were freight-forwarded on to Houston later that month.
Twenty years later, I met a couple of geophysicists at a conference in Denver. My having worked at their company long ago, the Niger project came up in conversation. One told me that he had a friend killed on the UTA flight that went down somewhere in that region. He was traumatised to learn that I’d been to the site where his friend was murdered.