By Maureen Harrington
November 20, 2000 12:00 PM

“It’s funny what you think about when you know you’re going to die,” says John Diaz. For him, that moment of reckoning came on Oct. 31 at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Airport, as Singapore Airlines’ Los Angeles-bound Flight SQ006, on which he was one of 179 passengers, crashed moments after its 11:18 p.m. takeoff in near-typhoon conditions. “I need to get my bag,” Diaz, 50, an executive for the San Diego-based digital music company, recalls thinking. “I just paid $600 for it and I didn’t tell my wife, Nancy, and she’s going to kill me for spending so much money, and then she’ll really kill me for losing it.”

Of course, the only news that Nancy Louise Jones, 48, truly cared about came in the cell-phone call that her husband, returning from a business trip to Japan and Taiwan, made to her moments after fleeing the fiery crash that claimed 82 lives. (Though a complete investigation could take as long as a year, Singapore Airlines has acknowledged that the ill-fated Boeing 747-400 was barreling down the wrong runway in a driving rain, where it collided with construction equipment and a concrete barrier, split into three pieces and burst into flames.)

The impact was enough to compress every joint in Diaz’s body, bruising him from head to foot, and his lungs were scorched by the toxic smoke from burning jet fuel. He may not suffer permanent injuries, but no one knows for sure. In the days since his brush with death, Diaz—who returned Nov. 2 to the sunny Frank Gehry-designed loft in Santa Monica that he shares with his wife, an artist—has slept in 45-minute snatches, waking from nightmares and unable to escape the memory of watching fellow passengers burn to death, still buckled into their seats. “It’s like a terrible video loop playing over and over again,” says Diaz, who has produced over 1,000 music videos for the likes of Tom Petty and Billy Idol. “No one should see humans becoming torches.” During an emotional conversation with correspondent Maureen Harrington, he spoke of his terrifying experience.

I just didn’t see how we were going to get out of there with that weather. There was a typhoon blowing, and I know something about that. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and we grew up watching the sky for hurricanes. This looked bad to me. I went out to the airport a couple of hours early. I remember I called my wife and she said, “If you’re so worried, just don’t even get on that flight.” But I said, “No, it’ll be all right.” I’m a little bit mad at myself. I should have listened to my instincts, but I didn’t.

I remember getting on and feeling the jumbo jet shaking from the wind. I got on last and I got into the furthest front seat in first class. I just glued myself to that window, watching everything, like when we were kids in New Orleans watching the sky for a storm.

I’ve never seen a plane move so fast to get out to the runway. I sat down and we immediately taxied out. I could feel us lifting off and then just seconds later I felt a terrible jolt, followed by a second smaller jolt. I’ve been in motorcycle accidents, and I’ve never felt anything like this. Strange, but I didn’t feel surprised or shocked. I didn’t feel afraid particularly. You know what I thought? I felt validated. I thought, “See, I told them so. We shouldn’t have taken off, and now they’ve killed me.”

Then you could feel the plane sliding. You could feel it moving, and then it stopped and all hell broke loose. That’s when the fire started, and I could see flames coming up around me, and the cabin began to fill with smoke. At that point I jumped into the aisle and I took a couple of steps. Then I reached back for my bag. When I turned, I couldn’t see where I’d come from because it was engulfed in flames. I ran down the aisle toward the emergency door.

While I was going to the door, I remember a video screen melting in front of me. It was like someone had taken a blowtorch to a wax figure. I thought, “Why aren’t I melting if metal is melting?” It didn’t feel like slow motion. I felt very focused and clear. I remember noticing the expression on the faces of some of the dead. I remember one guy’s face—he was lying there dead and he looked stunned. And then I saw other people just sitting in their seats dead, and they were on fire. I think that some passengers froze. They didn’t know what to do and so they just sat there. Some got up and maybe did the wrong things. I don’t know. I was told by some survivors that the flight attendants put damp cloths over their mouths which saved them from the scorched, damaged lungs that I have.

People have asked me if everyone acted as they should. I’m not sure; I saw very little. I saw what was going on around me, but the plane was cut in three. For a while I thought that very few of us—up front in first—were the only survivors. I think the people in business and in the first rows of coach had very little chance. From what I saw, they were all dead. I understand that the fuel tanks were right underneath them. Where I was, everything was dark and full of smoke from the jet fuel. I think I saw the ground at one point. It was as if the plane was disintegrating under my feet.

I saw people become human torches. It was horrible. You cannot imagine the heat in that cabin. It was like a coffin on fire. I can’t talk about some of the things I saw. Later I saw a woman flat-line in a triage room at the airport. She died right in front of me, but that was nothing compared to what I saw in that plane. It was Dante’s Inferno. If any of the jet fuel got on you, you would burn.

Then I saw other passengers at the emergency door. A couple of people were trying to get it open. I slammed my weight against it and it popped open. It was then that I felt a rebirth. I had known I was going to die—I was sure of it—until that door popped open. Then I thought there was hope. Some others went out first and I followed them. I got tangled up in the escape chute. I felt like a turkey in a plastic bag, but I fought my way free and then we all ran like hell. I didn’t see it, but I could feel the explosion behind me.

I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did—to be so calm and focused. Maybe it has something to do with my everyday discipline. I lift weights two hours a day, six days a week. Maybe that’s it. I think, though, that I was just lucky: I was sitting in the right seat; I didn’t get splashed with jet fuel; I was near a door. I grew up Catholic and I do have my own private spirituality, but I’m not sure, really, exactly what to think of this. I can tell you that this is all beyond wonderful, and I am very grateful.

I know I’m going to need some help with this, and I’ve already made an appointment with a therapist. Right now all these emotions are just rolling through me. Anger and despair and depression and incredible gratitude and sorrow-terrible sorrow for those dead. I don’t know what the result of this will be for me. But I will be changed.