Surviving a plane crash
FLIGHT ATTENDANT SUSAN White stood at her demonstration position waiting for the final briefing to the passengers. It had been more than 40 minutes since the explosion near the plane's tail, which the pilot said had taken out one of the engines. He'd just announced that he was going to attempt to land the crippled aircraft, Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago, at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Looking down the aisle, White noticed a blond woman in a window seat a few rows back. Cindy Muncey, 25, was on her way back from vacation in Hawaii, as were many passengers on Flight 232 that day.
Muncey "was crying hysterically," White later said. She thought, "I should go comfort her before this starts spreading." White hurried down the aisle and stood before Muncey's row. The dark-haired man sitting next to her, Efram Upshaw, 23, looked imploringly into White's eyes. White said, "Excuse me," and leaned across him to hug Muncey. "She was sweaty from crying," White said. "I just wanted to cry right there with her, and I just prayed for the will, the strength, not to cry."
Muncey began keening, "Are we gonna die? Are we gonna die? I feel like we're gonna die! I can't die; I have three small children. They're waiting for me to come home. They need me! I can't die!"
As White held Muncey in her arms, wondering what to tell her, Capt. Alfred Haynes announced, "This is gonna be the roughest landing you've ever had." And White was thinking, as she later put it, "For a DC-10 captain to say that, you know it's gonna be bad." White said, "I couldn't lie to her and tell her that we're going to be okay, because in my heart at that moment, I did not feel we were going to be okay." White held Muncey tighter and said, "We need to pray."
"Okay," Muncey said, gulping air in hard, shuddering sighs.
White proceeded back down the aisle, looking around her at the surreal scene. A man in a Hawaiian shirt comforted his wife. People wrote notes as last testaments. "I saw a few women put their [driver's] license down their shirts." She felt as if she were in a movie. Nothing seemed real any longer.
White strapped herself into the jump seat. "We got a four-minute warning, and it just seemed like it was . . . forever," White recalled. "I looked up at the Airphone, and I wanted to call home. And I thought, 'Oh, no, I can't call home, because that'll just make them sad.'"
A DC-10 is nearly 200 feet long, and she was in the last row. The initial point of impact was about a hundred feet ahead of her. In fact, as she tried to control her panic, the impact had already begun.
July 21, 1989: A safety inspector surveys a portion of the plane. | (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal/Ed Porter)
JUST A FEW minutes earlier, flight attendant Jan Murray had been serving lunch to two deadheading United pilots in the last row of first class. Peter Allen was in uniform. Dennis Fitch, by the window, wore civilian clothes. Murray had learned that Fitch was a DC-10 instructor at the United training facility in Denver.
Fitch was the oldest of eight siblings, and as such, he had developed what he called people radar. He could spot a distressed person at a hundred yards, as he liked to say. Now he saw that Murray looked grave and worried as she rushed past. Fitch reached out, touched her arm, and stopped her. Murray leaned down. "Don't worry about this," he told her. "We're gonna be fine."
She leaned in closer and spoke softly so as not to be overheard. "Both the pilots are trying to fly the airplane, and the captain has told us that we have lost all our hydraulics."
Fitch stared at her for a moment. "DC-10s must have hydraulics to fly them. Period," he thought. "Oh, that's impossible," Fitch told Murray. "It can't happen."
"Well, that's what we're being told," Murray said.
"Well, there's a backup system."
"We're being told that that's gone, too."
Fitch thought about that for a moment and said, "Well . . . I don't think that's possible, but . . . would you go back to the cockpit. Tell the captain there's a DC-10 Training Check Airman back here. If there's anything that I can do to assist, I'd be happy to do so."
After being waved up, Fitch reached the cockpit, still thinking that the flight attendant didn't understand the situation. But as the door opened, he recalled, "the scene to me as a pilot was unbelievable. Both the pilots were in short-sleeved shirts, the tendons being raised in their forearms, their knuckles were white." As he closed the door behind him, Fitch's eyes flicked over all the instruments and switches on the control panel. The plane had electrical power, but the hydraulic gauges read zero, and the low-pressure lights were on.
The plane was porpoising in a slow cycle, up and down, hundreds of feet every minute, even while both Haynes and First Officer William Records fought the yoke to no effect.
Haynes had hoped that Fitch would know some secret trick to bring the plane back under control, perhaps a hidden button that only flight instructors get to know about that would make everything all right. Second Officer Dudley Dvorak was telling United Airlines Systems Aircraft Maintenance in San Francisco that they needed assistance and needed it quickly. Maintenance was telling Dvorak that what he had reported was impossible. Having hydraulic fluid in the lines is a necessary condition of flight in a DC-10.
After a complete loss of hydraulic power, the plane would have no steering. It would roll over and accelerate toward the earth, reaching speeds high enough to tear off the wings and tail before the fuselage plowed into the ground. Or it might enter an uncontrollable flutter, falling like a leaf all the way to the earth, to pancake in and burst into flames. Under no circumstances would it continue to fly in any controllable fashion. To an expert pilot's eye, what Fitch saw in the cockpit was like watching someone walk on water. Haynes later said that Fitch "took one look at the instrument panel and that was it, that was the end of his knowledge."
"We're going to have to ditch, I think," Haynes said. Then, after a moment, "I don't think we're going to make the airport."
July 20, 1989: Iowa Air National Guard soldiers search a field near the plane's burned engine. | (AP Photo/James Finley, File)
WHEN THE PLANE rolled out of the clouds lined up with Sioux City's Runway 22, Fitch understood that they had 369,000 pounds of flesh and metal going nearly 250 miles per hour with no way to stop it. "But," he later said, "the beautiful thing was at the end of the runway was a wide open field that was laced in corn."
"And I thought, 'Perfect,'" Fitch said later. He had envisioned all that plant matter gently slowing the plane, cushioning the blow.
Flight attendant Tim Owens was strapped into his jump seat looking at all the seats on his side of the plane, all the heads down. Along with the other flight attendants, he was shouting, "Brace! Brace! Brace!" over and over again. At the same time, he kept glancing out the small window in his exit door.
"I could see how excessively fast we were going," he said later. And he could no longer shout "brace" with quite the same conviction, because he knew that the plane was going to crash and considered it likely that everyone would die. He braced himself as hard as he could, gritted his teeth, put his head back, and then felt himself slam into the ground. He felt the plane bounce and tip and then pole-vault up onto its nose.
And then, to Owens' amazement, the entire tail of the airplane broke off and departed. As the plane rolled up, a great aperture where the tail had been now angled across an arc of intense blue sky, and then — shockingly — it pointed directly at the high summer sun. "And I was blinded by the sunlight," Owens said. That shaft of pure sun streamed down the aisles, supersaturating all the colors and giving the scene a surreal cast. The celestial light flooded the cabin, illuminating a sight that Owens would never forget, as people who were still strapped into their seats were torn free and sent tumbling out onto the runway. Some of the banks of seats were thrown high into the air. Then the fuselage swept past the sun, and the cabin went dim once more.
Far away in the departed tail, passenger Martha Conant could not yet tell what was happening. All she knew was that the plane was shaking and shuddering and vibrating and wrenching so violently that she couldn't keep her hands on the seat in front of her.
"Then there was this huge rush of air and dirt and grit." She involuntarily closed her eyes. She felt as if she had blacked out. When her memory trace picked up again, she was still in motion with a hot torrent of air and sharp grit, like shattered glass, lashing her face. She had barely enough time to think, as she reported, "Oh, I'm still alive." Then her memory was again wiped clean. It seemed to her that she blacked out again. When her consciousness resumed, all motion had stopped.
Conant opened her eyes and saw the earth, a scabby field of grass and weeds, hot and moist from recent rains. "There was nothing in front of me," she said, still incredulous after more than two decades. She could not see the seat in front of her, now tilted to the right, torn almost free of its mounts. To Conant's right, Richard Sudlow and 9-year-old Yisroel Brownstein were buried in debris.
She took a breath and paused for a moment to let the astonishing sight sink in. "I unbuckled my seat belt. The seat was tilted forward, and I dropped probably 2 or 3 feet to the ground." The drop was closer to 8 or 10 feet. She landed in torn and twisted metal but noticed nothing, felt nothing, not even as she walked out, cutting her ankles on the twisted shards. It seemed as easy as stepping out of a car. She stood on the warm earth in the smell of the corn, the moist heat of the day.
Then she saw something in the distance that she thought might be people or vehicles, and at last her emotional system let her go. She ran flat out with her heart jammed up in her throat. Airports are big. The way seemed endless. A man appeared as if out of nowhere, and said, "Where did you come from? How did you get here?"
"Off that plane," she said, pointing to the foul cloud of black kerosene smoke that she could now see crawling across the green world, the blue sky. "And I am scared to death."
Adapted from Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales. Copyright © 2014 by Laurence Gonzales. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.