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Survivors gather to remember 1989 Iowa plane crash

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."

Join the discussion

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eturner1952 July 19 2014 at 10:31 AM

Anyone who can recall this crash remembers the footage of the cartwheeling jet, and thinking no one could have survived that crash. That 184 did survive is a tribute to the skill of the flight crew, and the readiness of the local fire, rescue, and medical services.

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lov2elkhnt July 19 2014 at 10:52 AM

I'm glad that one pilot just happened to be on the plane "Deadheading" and got to help run the throttle to keep the plane level, without that guy the plane would've nosed in from 35,000 at 600MPH plus. Lots of chance things got those folks on ground alive. Sorry to the 100 plus who didn't make it.

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Velocity105 July 19 2014 at 12:22 PM

Jesus, when you look at the video again of 232 hitting ½ mile before the runway you can't believe anyone survived, it is astounding. The plane cartwheeled over and over, ended up in a corn field upside down and the whole thing was on fire. Angels had to be onboard.

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1 reply
blueeyessing Velocity105 July 19 2014 at 3:42 PM

The Angel was Denny Fitch. R.I.P. to him (2012). The other pilot and flight attendants onboard also did a good job.

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1 reply
Queen Cersei blueeyessing July 19 2014 at 6:19 PM

I met Al Haynes once. He was a speaker and gave in depth details about that day.

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belldon10 July 19 2014 at 1:46 PM

I won't be surprised if someone comments that it was Obama's fault.

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2 replies
gatorsigns4 belldon10 July 19 2014 at 4:48 PM

As it happens, it was Obama' s drug dealer who supplied the cocaine to the guy running the forklift who is basically responsible for every part of this tragedy. Ovomit strikes again

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2 replies
mo524 gatorsigns4 July 19 2014 at 5:43 PM

Are you sure it was not Rush or Bushs drug dealer?

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Queen Cersei gatorsigns4 July 19 2014 at 6:21 PM

"Ovomit" "Osama" "Ohammy"... oh how witty those tea partiers are with their imaginative nicknames for our president. I never get tired of hearing them. -rolls eyes-

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ordobtrebla belldon10 July 20 2014 at 12:16 AM

Oh you mean the way Obama blamed Bush....

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flyjeffp July 19 2014 at 11:24 AM

For the record, it was check pilot Denny Fitch who supplied the aerial heroics that day, not Capt. Haynes. Just Google "One fell of a Tale" and you can watch the gripping multi-part series on the crash and Fitch's amazing airmanship. What Sully did was basic airmanship and good decision making....what Fitch did was for the ages.

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1 reply
flyjeffp flyjeffp July 19 2014 at 11:28 AM

Forgot to mention that Denny Fitch passed away not long ago of a brain tumor. He is revered by all pilots who remember the Iowa crash.

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1 reply
lov2elkhnt flyjeffp July 19 2014 at 12:28 PM

Thanks for letting us know about Fitch's passing. I had friends on that flight and knew some pilots who told me about Fitch and said no fitch on that flight then there would've been a big crater in Minn. or north central Iowa

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dracura94 July 19 2014 at 1:04 PM

It is ashame that there is still no prescribed solution to defeating aerodynalic lift. Perhaps large parachutes and or explosive bolts could be controlled buy computers to prevent a plane - doomed to make a crash landing - from lifting and cartwheeling. Imagine being able to cause the wing to snap off more inboard to prevent the kind of tumble this plane made.

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sulandherb July 19 2014 at 8:48 AM

I've always loved disaster movies.....I wouldn't want to live through one. 184 very lucky people.

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Buenos Dias July 19 2014 at 11:48 AM

What is forgotten here is the root cause of the failure. United maintenance crews damaged the engine with a forklift, ignoring the manufacturer's warnings about NOT using forklifts on DC-10 engines. The public blamed McDonell-Douglas, orders for the new planes were cancelled, and eventually the whole company died.

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1 reply
flyjeffp Buenos Dias July 19 2014 at 12:27 PM

That was a different crash out of Chicago.

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sunny8101 July 19 2014 at 10:56 AM

Praise the Lord for the survivors. Thoughts and prayers to the families who lost loved ones!!

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runswthscisors40 July 19 2014 at 9:52 AM

How's that saying go?.....Any crash you can walk away from is a good crash??......

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1 reply
barryaclarke runswthscisors40 July 19 2014 at 11:33 AM

The saying is any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. But, in these case, there are 112 people who didn't walk away and 184 who did. God bless all their lives.............

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