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What a plane crash feels like: The inside story of an American aviation disaster — and miracle

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Brad Griffin had his hands on the first class seat in front of him, which was the first row in the airplane. Gerald Harlon Dobson, a retired state trooper from New Jersey, sat with his wife, Joann, dressed in their festive Hawaiian clothes directly across from Rene Le Beau’s jump seat. Griffin had been meditating. He felt no fear, even though he could feel how unusually fast the plane was going. “And when we hit the runway,” Griffin recalled, “my seat belt pops.” He was stunned for a second, free in his seat, and he turned to look at Michael Kielbassa on his right.

“If this is as bad as it gets,” Griffin said, “we’ll be okay.”

It took but a second. When he turned to look forward toward Le Beau, as he later recalled, “the plane’s disintegrating. Everything’s starting to turn gray, because of the particles and whatever parts  of the plane are falling apart. And it’s getting hard to breathe.” The cockpit was separating from the rest of the plane, and angels of fire were roaring around the open tube of the fuselage, even as the first class cabin began tearing away from the remainder of the craft. As fire bloomed in the air, it consumed all the oxygen. Griffin could feel himself suffocating and could feel the air heating up around him, as the fire from the fuel spraying out behind him moved forward and expanded into a deflagrating cloud. Looking ahead, he could distinguish less and less of the structure of the airplane, as the identifiable parts—the bulkhead, the galley, the jump seats for the flight attendants— were being transformed into dust. Griffin watched it all with detachment.

Then he was launched into flight. “I’m free in the air. When that plane breaks into pieces, I’m thrown out of the plane and I see the fire. And as I’m leaving the plane, I think, ‘If I go in that fire, I’ll be a dead man.’ ” He believes that he traveled 150 or 200 yards. “I land in a cornfield, and I’m unconscious for a minute or so—maybe two minutes, I don’t know. I’d worn sandals, and I’m feeling this coolness on my feet, and I go, ‘Oh, that feels good.’ ” He didn’t yet know that he had broken the bones in his feet. His feet had also sustained second-and third-degree burns from passing through the cloud of fire. “And I go, ‘No, that’s fuel, stand up.’ And I stand right up, and I look around. The plane’s far from me. And I go, ‘Well, what should I do now?’ And my brain just said, ‘Go in slow motion. Just lie down.’ I lie down, and I hear people yelling for help around me. And I yell for help.”

Greg Clapper had left his wife, Jody, and his daughters, Laura and Jenna, in the car on the side of the highway after urging them to go back to the mall to see Peter Pan. They watched Clapper run down the shoulder toward the airport half a mile distant, and then Jody pulled out into traffic and drove away. Clapper ran on for a time, reflecting on how little he knew about the mission he had set for himself. He had his PhD from Emory University and was teaching at Westmar College a few miles up the road in Le Mars. He was the chaplain for the Air National Guard. But he had no real-life experience to prepare him for an event of this magnitude. All at once, he was filled with misgivings about his role. He had been to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University, but he hadn’t even been to the military chaplain school yet. He was merely an ordained minister. What resources could he fall back on? What help might he bring?

He stopped running. He looked toward the east at the angry vortex of smoke and debris. He threw his hands up to heaven and said, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace and help me to be your servant here.” And then on he ran toward whatever tasks awaited him. He knew that the situation would be bad. At the least, he’d be dealing with people who were severely shaken from the task of retrieving the dead.

He reached the gate and introduced himself to Chuck Sundberg, the director of Siouxland Health Services, the ambulance company for the local area.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sundberg said, and offered his hand. When they shook hands, a look of surprise crossed Sundberg’s face. “Wow,” he said. “I just got goose bumps shaking your hand.”

“You know, this isn’t the kind of thing you can prove,” Clapper said many years later, “but part of me wants to think, somehow, that holy spirit that I asked to come into my life was palpably noticeable to Chuck when we shook hands.”

Sundberg quickly prepared an ID for Clapper and recruited someone to drive him onto the field. Within minutes, he was walking through a scene that was beyond anything he could have imagined. Papers were blowing everywhere, and the sunny day had turned gloomy and overcast and gray with ash and smoke. Streamers of computer tape had come loose from the spools that had been packed in the luggage bay and now made shimmering serpents around his ankles as he walked. He squinted to make sense of the scene. Across the runway he went, stepping around a bank of seats in which the people lay beyond all hope. He passed the dead in all their ranks, in all their spectral attitudes. Some lay supine, mouths open in attitudes of near ecstasy, one upon the next, embracing. Some had bowed their heads as if in deep meditation or prayer. Others had been ground to pulp against the concrete and conveyed no expression at all. Clapper stepped off the far side of the runway and saw what was clearly a human form lying at the edge of the corn where the body had evidently smashed the stalks flat on impact.

Clapper crossed to the form and knelt. The man was not only alive, he was conscious. He was also badly injured.

Clapper asked, “What’s your name?”

“Brad,” Griffin said.

“I’m the chaplain, Brad. Just keep breathing in God’s spirit, and people are going to be here to help you.”

When the command to brace came, Susan White and the other flight attendants took up the chorus: “Brace! Brace! Brace!”

“And as I’m yelling it,” White recalled, “I’m saying the Lord’s Prayer in my head and focusing on the bright light, the tunnel—that swirling tunnel that takes you to heaven—the harps and everything peaceful that I had imagined heaven to be like.” She looked out the window and saw that they were passing through a layer of clouds, so fluffy, so white, so beautiful, and she felt her love of flying once more. “Right before impact, I said, ‘Okay, I’m in your hands, Lord.’ And I had no fear at all. No fear. I took a deep breath. ” And then she felt the devastating concussion and saw through the porthole in her exit door that a ball of fire had engulfed the plane. “And I calmly said to myself, ‘I’m burning to death. That’s how I’m dying.’ And the fire was there. And then we started tumbling, and three times I remember it hitting on my door.”

The flight attendants always locked the bathrooms before landing so that someone trying to escape wouldn’t walk in there by mistake and die. Now as she watched, the lavatory doors exploded open, and the blue water from the toilets spewed out into her face and across her chest and legs. As the separated tail screamed along the runway, metal grinding concrete, “I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, how many people went to the bathroom in there?’ And I could hear the tanks: Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! I have my hands on my

head, my legs are up in the air, as we’re tumbling around, and it was kind of. I don’t know, I would describe it as being in a tornado with the amount of soot and dirt that we were scraping up, and then pieces of metal were just flying around the plane. Something came and hit my leg and my butt and it tore my pants and sliced my shoe. I left my eyes open, because I wanted to block everything that was coming my way to protect myself.” The fire she had seen was gone now, and she fleetingly wondered where it went. She could see Martha Conant to her left, but she could not yet see what Conant would see when the tail came to rest. Since Susan was facing aft, she couldn’t see that the plane—the entire plane—was gone. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Hang on, Hang on,’ as I’m battling, and all of a sudden it was silent, and it just hit me, Oh, my gosh, I’m alive!” She immediately reverted to her training and began shouting, “Release your seat belts and get out! Release your seat belts and get out!”

Runway 17-35 formed a complex intersection where it met the old Runway 04-22 and Taxiway Lima. When the tail snapped off, it went rocketing down Runway 22 and came to rest at that intersection, mostly on the concrete of Taxiway Lima but with its open end on the grass easement. It had come to a stop on its side, tilted at an angle so that Dave Randa and his mother were suspended twelve feet or so above the torn and jagged metal of the hull. Still strapped into their seats, they were leaning sharply to their right, “looking down into scrap metal,” as Dave put it. “And the only way down is to jump.” Looking forward he saw a seat, “maybe two, and then a bunch of mangled metal. And daylight.” Despite the impact, the scraping and plowing and tumbling of this fragment of the aircraft, the row immediately ahead of him was intact, but beyond that, everyone was gone, the seats all gone. Susan White continued to shout, “Release your seat belts and get ut! Release your seat belts and get out!”

Susan Randa said, “I remember opening my eyes and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, we’re alive. How could we be alive?’ ” But she saw “absolutely nothing. It was just gray. There was no space, I don’t remember the seat. I remember Dave there. I still had my arm around him. But I did not know that we were up in the air.” A second, two seconds, may have passed when, hearing White’s words, Dave’s mother released her seat belt as directed. The boy watched his mother’s body recede in slow motion, growing smaller as she went. She landed in the jagged metal below.

Dave later said, “I look around, asking, All right, what’s going on? My mom dropped. She stood up and looked at me.”

On the way down, she hit something, “and I hope to this day that I didn’t hurt anyone,” Susan Randa said. She rose unsteadily to her feet. “And then I looked up, and I just saw Dave up there so high, and he had this blue shirt on, and all I could see was gray, plus his blue shirt, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, you left your kid up there. How are you gonna get him down?’ ” Susan Randa’s eyes would sometimes turn flame red as we talked. But when she spoke of leaving her son, she broke down and wept in the restaurant where we sat talking.

She called up to Dave, warning him to hold on before releasing his seat belt. The boy was athletic, big for his age. He braced against the seats and positioned himself so that he could drop feet first. His mother stepped back so that he could fall where she had fallen. She watched as he maneuvered, hung for a moment, and then let go. “Thank God, he did it,” she said. Some of the torn metal cut his ankle, but he was otherwise unhurt.

“So we’re in the metal,” Dave said. “We’re walking through metal. We see daylight.” Dave and his mother stepped out into a blaze of sunlight. They saw a fire truck grumbling at idle nearby. They walked fifty feet or so to the truck, and Susan asked the fire fighter, “Where should we go?”

“Go back in there and help those people,” he said, clearly unaware that she was from inside the plane and not some wandering volunteer. Susan held Dave’s hand and led him to a lighted sign on the taxiway. It was a metal box about thigh high with translucent illuminated panels. The markings on it meant nothing to her. She and Dave sat on the sign and watched the people come and go. As they waited in the midst of the unfolding catastrophe, Dave complained to his mother that he had lost his favorite Cubs hat and lamented the fact that they might miss the game.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the crash, Susan Randa told her son, “All I could think of when you said that, was ‘OMG, you’re lucky to have your head.’ Fortunately my parenting skills were working to the max that day and I said nothing. Still makes me laugh when I think of it.”

Dave told her, “What can I say, Mom? I started young with good priorities. ” He wanted to get to a Cubs game.

In those first few seconds of silence after the tail came to a stop, as Susan White was shouting for people to release their belts, she could not release her own. She was trapped. “I kept grabbing and grabbing and grabbing, and it wasn’t releasing.” Her every action was reflex from her training. But the jump seats on this particular aircraft had latch mechanisms that were different from the one she had used in training. She deliberately stopped herself to take stock of her situation. She was soaked with septic blue toilet water. The visual cues before her, the lavatory doors, were straight, and yet she felt as if gravity wanted to pull her at an odd angle to her left, and not down toward her feet as it had always done before. Concentrating on the task, she looked down at the clasp on her harness and realized that it was a different attachment. Now that she was focused, she was able to rotate the clasp. The belts released. She hung in her harness, still at that odd angle. She hooked her left arm into the shoulder strap and swung her leg around the way gravity took it. Thus dangling from her harness like a circus aerialist high above the crowd, she planted her left foot on her jump seat and braced her right foot on the magazine rack. Now she saw for the first time that the plane was gone. She had fully expected to turn and see the familiar cabin and all her people, but there was nothing. She saw seats torn asunder, people dangling, people falling, but no airplane. She saw Dave and Susan Randa below, departing across the grass. White had no memory of seeing John Hatch. Then as she was preparing to release herself and drop, she saw that a man was trapped beneath a piece of metal below her. He couldn’t get out. If she let go, she’d fall on him and crush him further. Someone, a woman, was with him. It was most likely the couple who had been sitting next to Martha Conant, Karl and Marilyn Walter of Denver.

“I’m stuck!” called the man, who was sixty years old and had injured his head.

White reached down for his hand but couldn’t span the distance. She took hold of the metal and pulled, but it wouldn’t move.

“I’m stuck!” he called again.

“Wiggle!” White shouted. “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!”

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