Meet Joe Thomas Karackattu, who quick-wittedly filmed an emergency

Joe Thomas Karackattu
Joe Thomas Karackattu knows how arduous journeys can foster human bonds. The assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who teaches in the humanities and social sciences department, has travelled thousands of kilometres to trace a family genealogy to seven centuries ago. So when he was flying to New York last month to showcase a documentary based on his travels, he once again did what he’s been doing: this time, he instinctively shot a film with his smartphone when a medical emergency caused the plane to make a detour via Iceland.

The Etihad flight (EY 103) from Dubai was the second leg of his long journey. It was slated to land at John F Kennedy International Airport at 9.30 am on March 19 after flying non-stop for 14 hours. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, the pilot made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on-board. Half an hour later, the pilot announced that the Airbus A380 carrying 400 flyers would make an emergency landing in Iceland so that a doctor could come to the aid of the ailing passenger. “The moment the announcement was made I realised it was not a usual flight. When we landed in Iceland it was clear that the response mechanism on ground was absolutely professional and prompt,” he says.

The 37-year-old recorded footage on his Sony Xperia XA, starting with the diversion, the three-hour halt in Iceland and the eventual landing in New York. The short film, titled The Unscheduled Stopover, which he has uploaded on YouTube, is a montage that includes shots of the Etihad flight, its live positions on the route map, clips of concerned passengers and cabin crew, flashes of website reports on the emergency landing, views from the aircraft during its flight and images of the ground staff at work in Iceland. The unfolding of events is explained with subtitles, and a symphonic soundtrack accompanies the nearly six-minute film.

The amateur documentary filmmaker says he tried to make the best use of all the cameras available on the flight, which included ones at the tail, front and upper body of the plane. He avoided focusing on the ailing passenger, so as not to be intrusive, and instead tried to highlight unique aspects of the incident, such as the de-icing (removal of snow) of the plane before it took off from Keflavik International Airport. “The best part was that when we landed at JFK, the pilot announced that the passenger in Iceland was safe. A person’s life being saved was way too momentous for me, and the rest of us were only cheerful at the end of the tedious journey on being told this.”

Karackattu had gone to the US to deliver lectures at three universities and attend a screening of Guli’s Children — his documentary on the historic links between his native Kerala and China. For this maiden venture, the professor, whose areas of interest include Sino-Indian ties, carried out research for two years to trace the movement of people from Kerala to China in the 13th century. He is working on a second feature, Those 4 Years, to focus on the migration of the Chinese to southern India in the second half of the 19th century.

Upon his return, Karackattu was clear that he did not want the moments he had captured to be buried in the memory card of his phone. And the airline deserved a message of gratitude, he felt, more so in a climate of all-pervasive negativity. Besides, as even the teacher admits, visual documentation not only reaches a wider audience it also works better than long reading lists and lectures.

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