Survivors gather to remember 1989 Iowa plane crash

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Survivors gather to remember 1989 Iowa plane crash
Two National Transportation Safety Board investigators check over the burnt remains of a jet engine from a United Airlines DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa on July 22, 1989. One hundred and nine people are confirmed dead from the tragedy. (AP Photo/Ed Porter)
SIOUX CITY, IA - JULY 20: A plane takes off neat the wreckage of the United Airlines flight 232 20 July 1989 in Sioux City, after its crash at Sioux City Airport 19 July. United Airlines flight 232 was a scheduled flight operated by United Airlines between Denver and Philadelphia. On July 19, 1989, the Douglas DC-10 (Registration N1819U) operating this flight suffered an uncontained failure of its number 2 engine (mounted in the tail), which destroyed all three of the aircraft's hydraulic systems. With no controls working except the power levers for the two remaining engines, it broke up during an emergency landing on the runway at Sioux City, Iowa killing 111 of its 285 passengers and one of the 11 crew members. AFP PHOTO CHRIS WILKINS
FILE - In this July 20, 1989 file photo Iowa Air National Guard soldiers search a field near the burned engine of United Airlines Flight 232 after the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 carrying nearly 300 people crash landed at the Sioux City, Iowa, airport. It has been 25 years since the crash but its legacy lives on. It changed the way planes were designed, ensuring more backup systems. It drew attention to the need for disaster emergency preparedness. And the heroic work of the pilot and crew has been lauded in movies and books. (AP Photo/James Finley, File)
FILE - In this July 22, 1989 file photo cranes lift the tail section of United Airlines Flight 232 onto a truck after the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 carrying nearly 300 people crash landed at the Sioux City, Iowa, airport. It has been 25 years since the crash but its legacy lives on. It changed the way planes were designed, ensuring more backup systems. It drew attention to the need for disaster emergency preparedness. And the heroic work of the pilot and crew has been lauded in movies and books. (AP Photo/James Finley, File)
A National Transportation Safety Board metallurgist inspects fragmentation damage to the horizontal stabilizers, Aug. 1, 1989, on the United Airlines DC-10 that crash landed at the Sioux City Airport two weeks ago. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)
Paul Brewer, a field representative for United Airlines, helps move a large piece of the fan disk from the rear engine of Flight 232, which was found in a cornfield near Storm Lake, Iowa, Oct. 12, 1989. One hundred twelve people died in the July 19 crash of the DC-10 at Sioux City, Iowa, airport. (AP Photo/R.W. Burdette)
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board look over one of the burned jet engines of a United Airlines DC-10 that crashed while trying to make an emergency landing on July 19, wreckage shown July 22, 1989. There are 109 confirmed deaths in the tragedy. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal Pool/Ed Porter)
A National Transportation Safety Board metallurgist inspects fragmentation damage to the horizontal stabilizers, Aug. 1, 1989, on the United Airlines DC-10 that crash landed at the Sioux City Airport two weeks ago. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)
United Airlines Flight 232 after the plane crashed at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989. Denver Post Photo by Brian Brainerd (Photo By Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A set of cranes lift the tail section of United flight 232 from the runway onto a flatbed truck at the Sioux Gateway airport in Sioux City, Iowa, Saturday, July 22, 1989. Investigators are removing the wreckage of the United DC-10, which crashed Wednesday afternoon, after it had been inspected in place. (AP Photo/James Finley)
A worker walks on top of the wreckage of a United Airlines DC-10 after it was raised out of a cornfield by cranes in Sioux City, Iowa on July 22, 1989. The wreckage was raised out of a cornfield by cranes for a search underneath the torn aircraft, which crashed while trying to make an emergency landing. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator walks in front of the torn portion of the passenger compartment of the United Airlines DC-10 that crashed and exploded on landing at Sioux Gateway Airport, near Sioux City, Iowa, July 21, 1989. The plane crashed July 19, during a flight from Denver to Chicago. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal/Ed Porter)
A National Transportation Safety Inspector looks t the rear engine mount, July 21, 1989, of the United Airlines DC-10 that made a crash landing at the Sioux City, Airport July 20. (AP Photo/Ed Porter)
A National Guard helicopter circles, July 21, 1989 over the site of crash of United Airlines DC-10, July 20, searching for debris to be collected for the investigation into the cause of the tragedy. The airline crashed on the runway of Sioux City Airport. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)
An official walks among the debris left behind by the crash of a United Airlines DC-10 on the grounds of Sioux City Airport, July 21, 1989. (AP Photo/James Finley)
A National Transportation Saftey Investigator looks at the ruptured passenger compartment of the United Airlines DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, Friday, July 21, 1989. The plane crashed last week and killed at least 109 people. (AP Photo/Ed Porter)
Iowa National Guard soldiers searcha bean field near the burned engine of a United Airlines DC-10 after a crash landing at the Sioux City Iowa Airport, July 20, 1989. (AP Photo)
Shown is the upside-down tail section from the United Airlines DC-10 which crash landed at Sioux City Airport, July 19, 1989, Sioux City, Iowa. (AP Photo)
A section of the United Airlines DC-10 stands among emergency vehicles after crashing while trying to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, Wednesday, July 19, 1989. (AP Photo)
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By Catherine Lucey

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - As he sat in a crippled airliner, Ron May braced his head between his legs and prayed for his wife, who was seven months' pregnant with their first child. Everyone on the jet feared they were about to die.

That was back on July 19, 1989, when May was a passenger aboard United Flight 232. The DC-10 was traveling from Denver to Chicago when it lost all hydraulic power after the rear engine exploded. The crew used the remaining two engines to steer a winding course to Sioux City, where the massive plane crash-landed, cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames before breaking apart in a cornfield.

Of the 296 people on board, 184 survived. Most couldn't believe it.

"We're upside down and I'm alive," May, now a 55-year-old Chicago pastor, recalled of the landing. "Everything was chaos."

A quarter of a century later, the flight is considered one of the most impressive life-saving efforts in aviation history. At the time, Capt. Al Haynes was hailed in much the same way as US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who safely ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River in New York in 2009.

The legacy of the crash lives on. It changed the way planes were designed, ensuring more backup systems to prevent the kind of catastrophic hydraulic failure that made Flight 232 almost impossible to control. It also drew attention to the need for emergency preparedness. And the efforts of the crew were remembered in movies and books.

This weekend, survivors will gather for 25th anniversary memorial events at the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation in Sioux City.

Still, some of the safety changes sought by survivors have not happened. Jan Brown, the lead flight attendant on Flight 232, has led an unsuccessful campaign to get the Federal Aviation Administration to end the practice of allowing children under the age of 2 to travel on a parent's lap without a ticketed seat. She is haunted by the memory of a 22-month-old lap child who died in the crash.

"It's heart-wrenching after 25 years," said Brown, now 73. "How truly pathetic that you can still take a lap child, the most vulnerable of our population, and risk flying with them on our lap."

Before she left her role as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year, Deborah Hersman lamented that the rules for lap children had not been changed since the crash.

In a statement, an FAA spokeswoman said the agency recommends that parents secure infants in seats, but said that if they are forced to buy an extra ticket, parents may eschew flying for driving, which could be more dangerous. According to data on the U.S. Department of Transportation website, there have been no preventable infant deaths on planes in 17 years.

The terror on Flight 232 unfolded over more than 40 minutes.

At about 3:15 p.m., an engine on the DC-10 aircraft exploded and chunks of metal ripped apart all three of the jet's hydraulic systems. The plane lost all hydraulic fluid, shutting down the systems that controlled the plane's altitude and direction.

Haynes sought to steer using the two remaining engines. He was aided by instructional pilot Dennis Fitch, who just happened to be traveling on the flight as a passenger. Fitch sat on the floor of the cockpit.

The crew knew the plane was in grave danger.

"The potential was that we could all go straight down," Brown said.

Haynes navigated toward Sioux City. According to the recordings from the cockpit, he said to the crew: "We're not gonna make the runway, fellas. We're gonna have to ditch this son of a (expletive) and hope for the best."

As the pilots tried to bring the plane down at the Sioux City airport, the right wing plowed into the ground, sending the jet into a cartwheel and tearing it apart as it skidded across the pavement into a cornfield.

"It was complete chaos. Bodies thrown about the plane. Others were thrown from their chairs. There was smoke and fire and debris," said Jerry Schemmel, 54, of Littleton, Colorado.

Survivors struggled to get out of the wreckage, emerging into the cool green Iowa cornfield. Schemmel tried to help people out and then went back in for a baby he heard crying.

The crash, captured on video and viewed in news broadcasts, was the subject of extensive review. An analysis by the NTSB found that the airline failed to detect a crack in a fan disk in one of the engines during an inspection process, which ultimately led to the engine failure.

Soon after, DC-10 planes were modified with a shut-off valve to prevent the loss of all hydraulic fluid in future.

The emergency response in Sioux City was also as a model for other cities to match. County authorities had disaster plans in place and had drilled for such situations. They quickly mobilized huge numbers of medical and rescue personnel, bringing in ambulances from more than 28 agencies across a 60-mile radius.

For survivors, the legacy of the crash is complicated, given the many lives lost. Schemmel said he will attend the memorial services this weekend, but then hopes to finally put Flight 232 behind him.

"I think as much as anything, it will be good for my family. Our son, who is 15, is going to come along," he said. "After this weekend, it will be a chapter we can close."

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