Almost 2 million Americans take to the skies every day. Flying is fast, efficient and safe, far safer than driving, as we are constantly assured.

Yet plane crashes occur, some survivable, others not. Ten years ago this month Capt. Chesley Sullivan landed a US Airways flight in the Hudson River. There were no fatalities. A few weeks later a Continental flight crashed near Buffalo, N.Y. There were no survivors.

Living through a plane crash takes luck, but also preparedness, says Evanston resident Jon Ziomek, author of the new book, “Collision on Tenerife.” Mr. Ziomek, a former Chicago newspaper reporter and Northwestern journalism teacher, has written a highly compelling account of the worst plane crash in aviation history. On March 27, 1977, a KLM plane taking off from Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands clipped a Pan-Am flight taxiing on the same runway. Sixty-one people on the Pan-Am plane survived, and no one on the KLM. Altogether 583 passengers died.

A “sickening series of coincidences” just beforehand – including heavy fog, confusion about takeoff instructions and a missed turn by the taxiing Pan Am plane – led to the disaster, Mr. Ziomek writes. “Changing any one of them would have prevented the accident.”

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” he said, noting his father had been a pilot during World War II. The book came about when Mr. Ziomek met two of the Tenerife survivors, Linda and Warren Hopkins, of Northbrook. When Ms. Hopkins passed away in 1991, he shelved the project. Twenty-five years later he took it up again, in part because he felt he had an obligation to alert the flying public that they have “some measure of control” over their fate in the event of an accident.

The book’s key takeaway is that just a few minutes of preparation can be lifesaving. That includes paying close attention to the safety presentation at the beginning of a flight, reading the safety card and making careful note of where the nearest exit is located, which may be over a wing rather than through the entrance door.

These are obvious – but crucial – steps in an emergency, because there may be only a few seconds to decide what to do and where to go.

Ordinarily in the event of an accident one would wait for instructions from the flight crew, who are highly trained to deal with emergencies. But in the Tenerife disaster, many of the flight attendants on the Pan Am plane were killed, and most passengers were left to decide for themselves what to do.

“But the vast majority of accidents are survivable,” Mr. Ziomek says. It just takes the right preparation. He will discuss the book at the North branch of the Evanston Library at 7 p.m. on March 18 and again at the Evanston Library Book Fair May 11. Check the library website for more information.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...