He jumped out of a burning plane into a jungle. You won’t believe what he survived with. Antonio Senna was three 0ft in the air, 242 km from the nearest town, with nothing but the rainforest stretching around him in all directions. When his plane’s engine stopped cold. It was supposed to be a four day trip, ferrying 600 liters of diesel fuel from the town of Allenker to a gold mine called California, tucked away in the Megkuru Reserve.
The spot was so isolated that Antonio needed a practice run the day before to locate the airstrip. Also, you wouldn’t normally agree to work with. The so called Garimperos Wildcat miners who doubled their production last year, profiting off the Pandemic’s price spikes in precious metals. Flying for them is technically legal, but their mining operations are not.
With little repercussion from the Brazilian government, the Garn Paris destroyed an area equivalent to 100 soccer pitches every year, a sizable puncture to the Earth’s lungs. The Mercury used to separate gold seeps into Rivers and food chains, a poison that lasts for years. And then there’s the risk. In a decade, as a pilot, Antonio had navigated dust storms in Chad and downpours in Brazil. But he’d never said yes to the miners.
He’d heard too many stories, like that of Klinger Bourgeo Valley, who walked away from eleven Garimpero flights only to see three of his brothers lost to the same business. But the Pandemic closed Antonio’s restaurant and reduced commercial flying hours. For 10 hours of work. He could make enough to pay some bills roughly 3000 Brazilian dollars, $750. Now Antonio was not flying, but gliding.
Hearing the rush of wind where the whirr of an engine should be, the gauges showed no fuel flowing. He took a deep breath, called Mayday on his radio and tried twice to revive the small aircraft. Then he began looking for the safest place to crash land in the densest jungle on Earth. He’s always been adventurous, said Antonio’s sister, Mariana. It was common to have him in trouble when he was a kid, a broken arm from falling off the neighbor’s roof, climbing up a tree, bike accidents.
As the oldest, it always pissed me off. I wanted to control him. To protect him. As an adult, he’d spend his weekends outdoors playing soccer wakeboarding or camping with his younger brother, Thiago. The decision to become a pilot didn’t come as a surprise to either of his siblings.
He sold a chunk of land to help pay for his license. Mariana gave him free room and board during his studies. She’d walk by his desk sometimes and overhear him, studying up on black boxes or jungle survival skills. Those moments made her nervous and only intensified as his career took off. In 2015, he performed a successful emergency landing with 24 passengers on board following an engine failure.
He gets himself into trouble, Mariana said. But he’s just as good at getting himself out of trouble. A small opening in the canopy revealed a patch of palm trees. The slender Giants normally live near water. They’re also somewhat soft, or at least as subtle as a tree can be.
As the ground rushed toward him, the first tree hit the belly of the plane with a thud. Then came the second. By the third, the cockpit was overcome by noise and confusion. When Antonio opened his eyes, he was pinned between his seat and the instrument panel with bits of cargo debris lying everywhere. The smell of diesel and aviation fuel filled his lungs and Antonio realized he was drenched in flammable liquid.
Grabbing his backpack and gathering what he could see, he pushed himself through the gap Where the windshield had been. Scrambling over the front of the wreckage. The sounds of explosions trailed him as he hurried up a nearby Hill Where he paused to catch his breath and take proper inventory. He had four cans of soft drink, Three bottles of water, Two pocket knives, Two lighters, one cell phone with no signal but a decent battery life. One bag of bread with twelve rolls, one pack of trash bags, one change of clothes, one flashlight, one rope, four big cuts, plus various scrapes and bruises.
Zero injuries of the life threatening variety. And this, Antonio realized, was a miracle. Staying alive would need to be a miracle, too. It would take more than a shelter of palm fronds and a fire with damp wood and a rudimentary spear to hold across his chest while he slept. But these are things he was able to add to his survival kit.
On that first night, he photographed them with his cell phone in an act of optimism. Maybe he’d get to show them around. One day, flights over the Amazon go missing so frequently that the public follows the search. Like sport crews from the Brazilian air force fly in zigzags along the intended route looking for dead spots and missing trees. A plainsized hole in 470,000,000 ha of jungle.
They give it five days. It’s extremely rare they actually find someone.
Tiago got the first call hours after Antonio was supposed to arrive at the airstrip. It was 08:30 p.m. And he was putting his daughter to sleep. He tried to ease Mariana into the news slowly, but she wanted the full picture. I just kept asking questions, she said.
I hadn’t that he was flying again, especially not this kind of flight. I realized I’ve been too into my life here. Instincts ran deep, and Mariana slipped back into big sister mode. It took her minutes to arrive at what would become the family’s guiding motto. Let’s just do whatever we have to do.
We just have to get to him. If he never came back, we won’t know what happened. The Air Force search and rescue crew set up base in the city closest to the crash Santorum. It required a flight, a boat, rough roads, and more than 7 hours of travel. But two days later, which happened to be Antonio’s birthday, both siblings were there among the tents, helicopters, small planes, and specialized search crews.
They left behind their families and jobs without saying when they’d be back. Antonio returned to the charred wreckage the following day to find. It yielded no more useful objects, but they still contained the best chance of rescue proximity to a stretch of open sky in a jungle where trees can stretch as high as 50 meters. It was here that the trained outdoorsman began his real jungle education, using the daylight to prepare for the night. It took hours to find dry wood in a place where it can rain as much as 5 CM an hour.
He rationed out a bite of bread per day. He held onto his lighters like lifelines. A nearby stream required a short walk because he never slept too close to water. He understood that alligators and anacondas hang out there, too, looking for their own sustenance. More than once he caught the lingering scent of old blood Jaguars.
At night, he’d curl up in a shelter and sleep an hour or two at a time, unable to turn down the volume on a menacing Symphony of bumps in the night. The rainforest is always in motion. Antonio noticed the window to the sky above him growing smaller and smaller as the palm trees, supple and soft, slid back into their upright positions. The hole was nearly closed when, five days later, Antonio heard the motor of the search and rescue plane growing louder and louder. Soon it was right over his head, shouting, jumping, waving.
He watched it pass by. Then he stood listening as the engine receded into the distance. There’s really nothing you can do with hands and knives, Mariana said. We had to wait. We had to form other strategies.
The owners of the mine were nowhere to be found. The owner of the plane was responding to calls, but nothing he said helped narrow the search. What the siblings did have were false alarms and high suspense. If the air Force search planes spy anything. They alert helicopter, which goes in for a closer look.
Twice, the Thunder of chopper Blades Filled the Siblings with hope. Twice they were disappointed. Once they’d learned later the Air Force pilots had spotted a bit of white in the never ending green. What they assumed was an airplane’s wing Was actually the foam of a rapid River Accumulating in Amazon sized proportions. The Air Force extended their search twice at the siblings Frantic begging.
But eight days after Antonio’s disappearance, they said there was no justification for the cost of continuing the search. They packed up and left. When the search plane didn’t return, Antonio gathered his belongings and took off south in the direction of the airport he had flown from in Alanchar. But by sunset, he returned to his crash site shelter. Defeated by the density of the jungle, dejected and dispirited, he grappled with the odds of death.
For the first time since his crash, what he needed most was not a clear direction but the ability to be seen. He began a conversation with God for the first time since childhood. Just let me see my family again, he said. Please let me see my family again. Antonio pulled up the aeronautical maps on his cellphone which offered little in the way of ground information but did show him three airstrips to the east, six nautical miles.
He had no way of knowing whether they were abandoned or active, but there was a promise of human activity and navigable using the sun. Eight days after his crash, buoyed by the thought of God on his side, he set out into the jungle. From morning light until noon, he trudged towards the sun or what he could see of the sun behind the rain clouds, he’d slash away vines and branches. With a pocket knife, he dodged branches Thrown at him by territorial Spider monkeys. He stooped to refill his plastic bottles with whatever running water he could find.
On the way, he adopted a routine. From noon until 03:00 p.m. He searched for a safe spot to build shelter usually on the top of a Hill far from water. From three to five, he built a shelter from five to six he prepared a fire Then he did it again the next day and the next his wristwatch became.