What It's Like to Survive a Plane Crash
Twenty-five years ago, a plane crashed in Iowa. It broke apart, then burst into flames. Somehow 184 people lived.
The following is excerpted from Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, our sponsor this week.
Susan White stood at her demonstration position waiting for Jan Brown to give the final briefing to the passengers. Looking aft from exit 3-Left, she noticed a blonde woman in a window seat a few aisles back. Cynthia Louise Muncey, twenty-five, was on her way back from vacation in Hawaii, as were many passengers on flight 232 that day. Muncey was dressed in bright summer yellow. She had sent a postcard to her little sister Pam before boarding a flight to Denver. “Hello All!” read the card from the Outrigger West Hotel in Honolulu. “I made it!! You wouldn’t believe it here!! Lots of really big motels! You would love it here, Pam! Even better than Florida! Call you if I ever go home! Ha! Ha!”
Now Cindy “was crying hysterically,” White later said. She thought, “I should go comfort her before this starts spreading.” White left her position and hurried down the aisle. She stood before Cindy’s row. The dark-haired man sitting next to her, Efram Upshaw, twenty-three, looked imploringly into White’s eyes. She could see that he was both frightened and at a loss for how to help the weeping woman. Upshaw would be severely injured, the last of all the survivors to be released from the hospital, but he would live. White said, “Excuse me,” and leaned across him to hug Cindy. “She was sweaty from crying. I just wanted to cry right there with her,” White said, “and I just prayed for the will, the strength not to cry.”
Cindy 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!”
Years later, White said, “I honestly felt we were going to die when she asked me, that’s how afraid I was inside. But I had willed myself not to cry and I somehow remained composed.”
Cindy’s three little girls—seven-year-old Kayce; Amber, who was about to turn five; and Audra, who had recently celebrated her second birthday—were waiting for her at home, along with Pam, twenty-one. Pam adored her sister and was especially eager to reunite with Cindy. “My first memory of our special sister bond,” Pam recalled, “is a day that we were running late for school. I was in first grade and she was in fifth.” As the two girls came out the front door, they saw the school bus pulling away. Cindy ran down the street to catch the bus, but little Pam was too slow. Pam was seized with the fear that Cindy was going to leave her forever. She screamed, “Wait for me!”
Cindy turned around to look at her little sister. She could hear the panic in her voice. She returned to Pam and said, “I wasn’t going to let the bus leave you. I was going to have it wait for you.”
“At that moment,” said Pam, “I knew she would always have my back.”
When Pam was five years old, she had a crush on a boy named Rick. Cindy, along with Rick’s sister, contrived to marry them behind a bush outside the church they all attended. Rick slipped a pop top from a soda can onto Pam’s finger, and Cindy pronounced them married for life. Later, when they were older, Pam confided in Cindy that she was in love with that same boy, Rick McDowell, but it seemed unlikely that they would ever get together.
“Others thought I was nuts and that I should move on,” Pam said. Pam and Rick had stayed in touch by phone and through letters. But “he was on one coast, and I was on the other. It seemed impossible.” She was living on Carolina Beach where her family ran a motel, and Rick was in San Diego in the Marines. “I mean, you couldn’t get farther away.”
But Cindy assured her, “I believe in fairy tale endings, Pam.”
Rick proposed over the phone. They were apart during the entire year of their engagement. In fact, Rick was swept up in the Gulf War and was out on a ship for six months. Pam had wanted her sister to be her maid of honor, but the wedding didn’t take place until two and a half years after the crash. Pam had saved the pop top from her wedding ceremony at the age of five. She wore it around her neck at the real wedding on December 14, 1991. “I married that boy and have been happily married for over twenty-one years,” Pam said when we spoke the day before her anniversary. After the wedding, they had the pop top embedded in an acrylic cube and made into a nightlight that burns in their bedroom.
As White held Cindy in her arms, wondering what to tell her, Captain Haynes announced, “This is gonna be the roughest landing you’ve ever had.” And White was thinking, as she later put it, “Oh, my goodness. 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 Cindy tighter and said, “We need to pray.” She took a breath and explained, “We need to be prepared for the roughest landing, like the captain just said. And we need to pray.”
“Okay,” Cindy said, gulping air in hard shuddering sighs.
White returned to her exit. As she glanced to her left, she saw Bruce and Dina and Ruth Anne Osenberg holding hands with one another and praying with Tom Postle. Postle had his Bible in his lap. Their heads were bowed. White felt a rush of emotion and confidence that what she had told Cindy was right. She looked up and saw that Cindy “still had tears, but she had calmed down.” White later said, “She made such an imprint on my heart. I will never forget her, and we only shared a brief moment.” Later, while testifying about Cindy in court, White burst into tears and ran out of the courtroom.
When Jan Brown finished briefing the passengers, White started down the aisle, helping people practice bracing. She came across thirty-one-year-old William Phillip McNulty III across the aisle from Janice-Long Brown and her daughter Kimberly. Three-year-old Annabelle Lee McNulty sat in her father’s lap with a blanket over her. White lifted the blanket and saw that McNulty had belted Annabelle into his own seat belt, which would almost certainly have killed the child on impact. White explained to him that he was supposed to put the baby on the floor cushioned with pillows and blankets. “I’ll go get some pillows,” White told the young father.
Janice and Kimberly overheard the conversation and passed their pillows and blankets across the aisle. “And so we wrapped his baby in pillows and blankets and he put the baby on the floor.” White paused and sighed wearily as she spoke about it. “And then I learned that he and the baby both died.”
White proceeded 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. When she reached the rear of the plane, she assessed how she would respond to the emergency evacuation. She decided that Dave Randa and his mother could not help. Dave was still folded completely in half, clutching his legs, his mother’s left hand draped across his back. He still wore his favorite Chicago Cubs hat. White turned to John Hatch beside Conant and asked him to help with the door.
White strapped herself into the jump seat, facing aft, back to back with Susan Randa. “We got a four-minute warning, and it just seemed like it was . . . forever,” White recalled. “And 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.” Her mind was racing, crazy, jumping all around. She remembered Jan Brown telling her to watch out for fire when they landed. She remembered that her United Airlines coed softball team was playing that night. They played every Wednesday night in Chicago, and she had promised to be there. She leaned forward in her jump seat to look around the magazine rack with the Newsweeks and Times and Wall Street Journals. She called in a stage whisper to Donna McGrady, the flight attendant who had switched the seats of Yisroel Brownstein and Richard Howard Sudlow.
“Donna! Donna! Do you think they’ll know why I’m not at my game tonight?”
“I think they’ll know,” McGrady replied.
“Okay,” White said. She sat for a while, letting her thoughts churn and fidgeting in her seat. Then she leaned forward again and called out, “Donna! Donna! Do you think they’re going to release me for tomorrow?” She had two more days of reserve when the airline could call her for any flight, but after this experience, she didn’t want to work.
“Yes!” McGrady said. “I think you’ll be released.”
As White leaned forward, looking across the galley, she saw that McGrady had taken out her earrings. She liked big earrings. “I thought, Gosh, I need to take my earrings out too. Here we went through and told everybody take off their eyeglasses and pens out of their pockets, and here I had my earrings on.” She unfastened her harness and stood up.
“What are you doing?” McGrady called in alarm.
“I’m taking my earrings off!” she said. The passengers—Conant and Hatch and Dave and Susan Randa—could hear the two flight attendants, and must have been wondering what on earth they were thinking. White opened the cubby behind her seat—they called it the doghouse—and hauled out her tote bag. She took off her earrings and put them in the bag. Then she stowed it once again. She sat down, fastened her harness, and “about every five seconds, I kept tightening my seat belt. I couldn’t get it tight enough.”
She checked her door again, rehearsing in her mind how she would open it. She recited all her commands and reviewed how she would notify the cockpit, while at the same time recalling her whole life and wondering how her parents were going to survive losing a child. “I have five sisters, and I thought about my sisters, and they were going to wear my jewelry and my clothes after I died, and I just kept thinking of all these horrible sad, sad thoughts. And I thought, ‘My goodness, I wish I’d never gotten this job.’ I got this job to see the world, and I’d only been to Jamaica, and I started feeling sorry for myself. I just remembered everything in detail. I could picture my pastor up at the pulpit announcing my death in the church I grew up in, and how my mother was going to be so sad. And then I would go back to, No, we’re going to evacuate and we’re going to be fine. And then I kept going back to more thoughts. How are they going to get my car keys? How are they going to get my car out of the employee parking lot? All my bills are paid. Everything is in order.”
She craned her neck around toward the front and saw a man with his arm around his wife, comforting her, Forrest and Sandra Mixon, in their fifties, from Chapel Hill. White wished for someone to comfort her. Then she began focusing on a movie she had seen about people who had died and then come back to tell their stories. “I started focusing on that thought of going to heaven, a much better, peaceful place.” And White’s experience of all those thoughts and memories took a mere two minutes, for now she heard Dvorak call out the two-minute warning from the flight deck.
Conant watched White and the boy in the baseball cap and his mother. She saw White glance around at her passengers with a drawn and ashen expression. Conant now lowered her head and tried to make herself small. But then as the landing approached, she began to panic. “I just started to lose it,” she said. “It felt like I was just churning, like I had no center and no control over my limbs, my arms, my legs, and I was so frightened that I couldn’t think.”
A DC-10 is nearly two hundred 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.
When the plane rolled out lined up with Runway 22, Fitch understood that they had 369,000 pounds of flesh and metal going nearly 250 miles an 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.” The Sioux City airport leased about a thousand acres of its land to the Sioux Land Farm Agency, which planted corn and soybeans in the fields and in return provided the airport with about 15 percent of its operating revenue. This meant that 1819 Uniform would be landing, in effect, on a rich, green, wet, midsummer farm. “And I thought, Perfect,” Fitch said later. He had envisioned all that plant matter gently slowing the plane, cushioning the blow. It would be like dropping a ceramic vessel into a pile of newly mown hay. It would not even crack. Then the eight doors would open, the yellow slides would blossom, and all the passengers would emerge from the cathedral in a jubilant procession. “And we’re going to the nearest saloon,” said Fitch, “and I’m buying.”
In the final seconds of the flight, at an altitude of about four hundred feet, Haynes saw their excessive speed and was concerned that the tires would explode on contact. The plane would normally land at about half its present speed. Haynes told Fitch to take the power off. Records, too, told Fitch to cut the power. But Fitch was on his own, Records said. Fitch later said that he had planned to close the throttles as the plane touched down, “but then I looked over to see the incredibly high sink rate, eighteen hundred feet per minute toward the ground, three times in excess of the structural capability of the landing gear. So I firewalled both the engines.” He stretched his arms forward as far as he could reach, straining against his harness as he sat in Dvorak’s seat.
The left engine spooled up to almost 96 percent power, while the right reached only 66 percent at first. It’s possible that Fitch pushed both throttles the same amount and the engines happened to respond that way. The relationship between the position of the throttle and the thrust that an engine produces is not linear. The second possibility is that Fitch made a mistake. While he thought that he was pushing the throttles evenly, he may not have done so. A third possibility is that the plane, which had been trying to turn right for more than forty minutes, turned right once more on its own. Whatever the case, the right wing went from about 2 degrees of bank to more than 20. This happened less than a hundred feet above the ground, and it happened fast. Once the right wing began to drop, it took but a fraction of a second for it to tear into the runway at roughly the same time that the right landing gear gouged a trench through the concrete.
Records believes that whatever caused the difference in thrust, “had we made a real nice touchdown, we probably would have gone off the end of the runway at 150 knots with no brakes, no nose-wheel steering, no spoilers, speed brakes. Who knows what could have happened? As it turns out, maybe we were fortunate.” He believes that the difference in power was not a blunder on Fitch’s part but was nothing more than the difference in the time the engines took to spool up.
Tim Owens was strapped into his jump seat at 3-Left looking at all the seats on his side of C-Zone, all the heads down, all the way back to Dave and Susan Randa, with Owens’s dear friend Susan White in her jump seat right behind them. 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. “Right before we hit the ground, I took one last look out the window and everything was just a blur.” 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. He vividly recalled looking down his aisle toward Susan White. He couldn’t see her, but he knew where she was, sixteen rows away. He could see her elbow as she crossed her arms and tried to brace in her jump seat facing the toilets. And then to Owens’s amazement, the entire tail of the airplane broke off and departed. As the plane rolled up onto its nose, the great aperture that had opened 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, far above the fuselage in great parabolas, shot there as if from a cannon by the centrifugal force as the aft end of the fuselage swung in its majestic, flaming arc. What must it have been like to take that ride, alive, aloft, alone, aware, unhurt as yet and looking down on the green earth? Then as the plane continued its balletic progress, the breached fuselage swept past the sun, and the cabin went dim once more.
“It all happened so fast,” Owens said. “The plane was breaking apart, things were coming apart around me, people were screaming.” Soon his view of those people who were being cast out was obscured as Owens was buried by debris. And once again he became certain that this was how his life would end.
Far away in the departed tail, 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. Conant’s left hand flew free, as if of its own accord, and she involuntarily took hold of John Hatch’s necktie.
“And then this voice in my head said, ‘If you panic, you’re not going to be able to get out.’ ” She withdrew her hand and put it back on the seat in front of her and tried to steady herself. Only seconds had passed, but it seemed much longer.
“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. John Hatch to her left, the couple to her right—if they were there, she could not see them either, nor Susan White in her jump seat nor Dave Randa and his mother. To Conant’s right, nine-year-old Yisroel Brownstein and Richard Howard Sudlow were buried in debris. The entire plane was gone, that much was true. And in Conant’s perception, only the hurtful beauty of the green earth remained, the place she had so dearly longed to be beneath the vast, impossibly blue sky. Some colossal force had set her gently on this soil and had opened a passage the size of the entire circumference of the ship through which to escape. Nothing else existed. If she’d been looking for a miracle, it appeared that she had found one.
She took a breath and paused for a moment to let this astonishing sight sink in. From somewhere far off, the cicada sound of a red-winged blackbird reached that section of seats. Killdeer raced past the opening into the corn. “I unbuckled my seat belt. The seat was tilted forward, and I dropped probably two or three feet to the ground.” The drop was closer to eight or ten 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. In her view now, as she looked around, she saw no fire, no airplane, no debris. “I was the only person out there, and I kind of looked to see—where should I go?” She turned and turned and turned, peering, searching. 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.”
You have been reading an excerpt of Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales. Buy your copy today: