'Flight 232': Survival And Heroism In Sioux City
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
International experts continue to investigate the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky over a disputed area of Ukraine. Laurence Gonzales has written a new book about an airplane disaster that happened 25 years ago - United Airlines Flight 232, bound Denver to Chicago. It was both a tragedy and a miracle, whatever you think a miracle might be. One hundred and twelve people died when the rear engine blew up and the pilots had to put down in Sioux City, Iowa, where the plane smashed onto the runway, burst into flames and thudded into a cornfield.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: According to United Airlines, 184 of the 293 people aboard Flight 232 are alive. Wreckage is strewn over an area three-quarters of a mile wide.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Investigators are going through that debris for clues to the crash...
SIMON: Laurence Gonzales, author of the bestseller "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why" and is also a licensed pilot, has talked to hundreds of survivors of Flight 232. And he's reconstructed the crash, the loss and the heroism - not a word lightly used - of that day. And the test that followed survivors as they tried to return to life. His new book - "Flight 232: A Story Of Disaster And Survival." Laurence Gonzales joins us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City. Think so much for being with us.
LAURENCE GONZALES: It's my pleasure.
SIMON: I want you to take us into that cockpit immediately. Captain Alfred Haynes, Williams Records - the copilot - are literally wrestling with the steering mechanism.
GONZALES: They're cruising along at 37,000 feet on autopilot, drinking coffee after lunch. Then there's a loud explosion and they notice that the No. 2 engine is offline. They know what to do. They make a little announcement and say we'll go to Chicago on two engines instead of three. And they start to shut it down. And all of a sudden, the first officer realizes that he's turning left and the plane is turning right. And he says, Al, I can't control the plane. When Al Haynes puts all the thrust on that right side and that wing slowly comes back up, and that saved everyone on board - that moment.
SIMON: So many stories in this book of human heroism and heroic stories don't always have happy endings. Let's try to encapsulate this, if we could, through the experience of a man whose name might be familiar to a lot of our listeners. Jerry Schemmel - he is nowadays, 25 years later - is the voice of the Colorado Rockies baseball team.
GONZALES: Right, he was seated in the Coach cabin and noticed that a lady just ahead of him had a lapped child. This was a boy named Evan and his mother's name, Sylvia. And this little child was squirming around. And Jerry was watching and thinking, I'm going to help these people out as soon as the plane comes to a stop.
SIMON: Do you have a copy of your book, Mr. Gonzales?
GONZALES: I do, I do.
SIMON: I wanted you to read that section. I found it so gripping - if that's possible.
GONZALES: (Reading) Then began the breaking of the great aluminum ship - ripping and screaming across the ground, bursting into flames as it went. People were crying out. He watched in amazement as, quote, "a woman still strapped in her seat flew past me on the other side." A ball of fire roared down the aisle above him. Then the vessel arched into the air, breaking up further as it angled over - pirouetted and slammed down onto its back. He released his seatbelt and it dropped to the ceiling. He looked for Sylvia Tao, who had been seated ahead of him with her grinning toddler, Evan. They were nowhere to be seen in the smoke.
SIMON: And he found her. What happened then?
GONZALES: He found Sylvia walking toward the back of the plane. This is all on fire and filled with smoke. And he stopped her because he knew she was going to go back there and die. And she said, I have to find my son. I have to find my son. And he said, I'll find your son. You go out and save yourself.
SIMON: He went back into a burning airplane to help a stranger - someone he didn't know?
GONZALES: Well, two things happened. One is - first, he looked for this boy, but he couldn't find him. It was too chaotic. So he wound up outside the plane with everyone else who was coming out. And as he stood there, just barely outside the plane, he heard crying. So he turned and he went back into this smoke and fire. And he followed the voice of this baby until, finally, he got there. And then when he got outside, he looked at the child and realized it was not Evan. It was another baby. It was a little girl the name Sabrina Lee Michaelson.
SIMON: What did they finally determine caused the crash of Flight 232?
GONZALES: Well, that's still being debated today. But the way I explained it in the book starts with a piece of faulty titanium that was cast by a company called Titanium Metals of America. And this turned into the disc that you can go out to the airport and see on the front of any jet engine. It has all these blades attached to it. Well, that disc holding the blades cracked where that little defect was. And it cracked a tiny bit the first on the engine was started. And it cracked every time the engine was started thereafter. Until after about 15,000 flights, it let go.
SIMON: Captain Haynes, so many of the other crew members were flying within a few months again, weren't they?
GONZALES: Yes, everybody went back to flying with a couple of exceptions. One of the passengers on the plane, a 19-year-old Japanese exchange student, Aki Muto - she's a flight attendant now. She flies every other day and loves it.
SIMON: People survive, but can we ever say where a tragedy like this will stop being felt in their lives?
GONZALES: It won't. People do get on with their lives, but there's always a remnant of the event left. And I'll tell you - a surprising thing happened to me while writing "Flight 232." I would interview people and I'd say, so how did this affect you emotionally in the long-term? And these people said, oh, it didn't really. I just kind of went on with my life. I figured I'm not going to get in another air crash, certainly, so why think about it? And, yet, as our interview went on, I found that these people would choke up and sometimes break down and say, you know, I didn't realize these emotions were still inside me. So it never goes away. Susan White - she's a flight attendant herself - went through some therapy, returned to work and was doing fine. When the World Trade Center was attacked, she went back into PTSD all over again. So it was triggered by another kind of event - of catastrophe.
SIMON: Laurence Gonzales - his new book, "Flight 232: A Story Of Disaster And Survival." Thanks very much for being with us.
GONZALES: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.