(p. 279) In August 2001, as an American Airlines 777 jetliner arriving from overseas descended toward John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and lowered its landing gear, the frozen body of a man fell into a marsh beneath the field’s approach lanes. The body, believed to be that of a young Nigerian, was buried in a plain wooden casket in City Cemetery, the resting place of New York indigents popularly known as Potter’s Field. No one will ever know for certain, but it appears the young man, who carried no identification, had hidden in the wheel well of the jet, hoping to steal into the United States. If, as police speculated, he was from an African village, he might not have known that the air outside a jetliner at cruise altitude may be minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and that wheel wells are unheated; they are also not pressurized, rendering breathing almost impossible at a jetliner’s cruise altitude. Or the victim might have known these things and climbed into the wheel well anyway because he was desperate. The unknown man’s death (p. 280) marked the third time since 1997 that the frozen body of someone desperate to enter the United States had fallen from the wheel wells as a jetliner from overseas lowered its landing gear on descent toward JFK. In the man’s pockets were a few minor personal effects and a street-vendor’s map of Manhattan.
Contemplating this tragedy I thought, first, of the horror the man must have experienced as the plane’s mindless hydraulic mechanisms drew the landing struts and wheels up to crush him. Somehow he avoided being crushed–only to realize as the air craft ascended that it was getting very cold and the air was getting very thin, and he was going to die gasping and shaking. Then I contemplated what the man’s final thoughts might have been. Fear, of course; regret. Perhaps, at the last, dread that his own death might consign the rest of his family in his village to a life of suffering: for the desperation of many trying to reach the West from the developing world is motivated by their desire to work extremely hard and to live on the edge here, sending part of their incomes back home to those even worse off.
Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.