Jet Crash Lingers in Memory : Survivor Recalls Horror of Disaster That Killed 582


She has often wondered why she and her husband escaped death while so many others perished in the crash.

Ten years ago today, Floy Olson of Laguna Hills Leisure World was one of 68 people to survive the worst airplane disaster in aviation history, a two-plane collision that killed 582 people in the Canary Islands.

Olson, a retired junior high school teacher, was aboard a Pan American jet when a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jet slammed into it at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Thirty-nine other Leisure World residents were also on the Pan American jet; 10 survived.


Now 80, Olson still has vivid memories of the horror when the two Boeing 747 jumbo jets collided but says she isn’t haunted by it.

She and her first husband, Paul Heck, who also survived the crash but died of a heart attack in 1981, never “had a single nightmare, and I haven’t had one to this day,” Olson said.

She believes that Heck’s quick reaction to the accident saved her: “I was in shock, and I would have perished if it hadn’t been for my husband. I heard a woman shout, ‘We’ve been bombed!’ That’s what I thought, and I thought I was dying. I heard my husband shout, ‘Floy, unfasten your seat belt. Let’s get out!’ ”

The airplane crash, which occurred on a runway at the Tenerife airport, was the result of bad weather, unusually heavy air traffic and misunderstood instructions.

Olson’s plane, like many others that were supposed to land at nearby Las Palmas Airport, had been rerouted to Tenerife because of a bomb explosion at the Las Palmas facility.

After waiting at Tenerife three hours, Olson’s flight was finally cleared to fly to Las Palmas. There the plane’s passengers were to embark on a 12-day Mediterranean luxury cruise.


According to reports at the time, the Pan American plane was taxiing out through rain and fog when the KLM jet, apparently misunderstanding instructions from the tower, began racing down the runway for takeoff and hurtled into the Pan American jet.

Collision and Fires

In the collision and the fires that followed, all 225 passengers and crew aboard the KLM flight died, as did most of those on the Pan American plane.

“We did pray about our trip and safety, and I think God did say, ‘there’s some work for you yet,’ ” Olson said.

Six of the Leisure World survivors--Herbert and Lura Waldrip, Mario Tyzbir, Byron and Grace Ellerbrock and Olson--still live there. Former travel agent Jean Brown has left the retirement community. Harold and Grace McGowan, like Paul Heck, later died of other causes.

Two of the Hecks’ closest friends, Lorraine and Karl Larson, died in the disaster. When the crash occurred, Lorraine, who had been seated next to Floy, “was sitting there like a zombie” with her mouth open, Olson remembers.

“If only I could have said, ‘Lorraine, come on, get out of here,’ ” Olson said sorrowfully, but “I know I was in shock. . . . I never answered my husband” when he called to her to follow him.

“One of the common sights were the columns of shimmering flame, just perfect columns from ceiling to floor,” Olson said. A piece of burning debris hurtled toward her head as she stood up to follow Heck, she added, and in batting it away, she burned her hand.

“I felt as though a heavenly umbrella was over my head, because nothing touched me. I wasn’t burned (otherwise) at all,” she said. Her husband, however, was severely burned as he pushed aside debris to clear a path to let them reach an open emergency door near one of the wings.

Jumped Two Stories

“So we both got through onto the wing, and I watched my husband run to the tip of the wing, the highest point, and when he jumped it was two stories down,” Olson said. “But a little voice said to me, ‘That’s not for you, Floy,’ ” and she jumped to the ground from a perch close to the plane’s body.

In the fall, her head struck the wing and she lost consciousness for a few moments. When she came to and got to her feet to run, she discovered her right leg was useless.

That was when she started praying, Olson said. She crawled away from the wreck before the explosions, caused by burning fuel, began. She looked back twice and realized that she would have been cremated if she had stayed near the plane, she said.

She wasn’t afraid during the escape, Olson said. “I’ve often wondered why. I didn’t have fear, and I can’t explain it because I’m a very emotional person. I’m emotional at a wedding, I’m emotional at a funeral, I’m emotional at a sad movie, and yet I haven’t been emotional about this. I just knew I had to keep going” to get away from the crash site.

Taken by emergency workers to a Tenerife hospital, Olson did not find out until midnight that her husband was alive in another hospital.

Government Plane

The Hecks were transported back to the United States on a government plane three days after the accident. “He was on one stretcher, and I was on another,” Olson said. They were not able to really talk until they reached California, she said. Heck was immediately hospitalized at the UCI Burn Center.

Olson was treated as an outpatient at UCI for her burned right hand, strained tendons and sprained ankle. She limped for a year, she said. Heck, who contracted hepatitis, was never really healthy again.

After Heck’s death, two matchmakers, George and Marge Sutton of Newport Beach, began talking to Floy Heck about Elmer Olson, a recent widower who was her neighbor. The Suttons also started telling Elmer about Floy.

“Neither one of us was interested in getting married again,” Floy Olson said, “but our friends worked very hard to get us together.” Eventually the friends succeeded. Floy and Elmer’s first date was in July, 1982, and five months later they were married.

“It was a quick romance, and yet we really knew each other far better than I would say the average young people do,” she said.

Church Members

Both active members of the interdenominational Calvary Church of Santa Ana, the Olsons share strong interests in music and have done some long-distance traveling together, flying to Israel, Hawaii and Scandinavia.

The 1983 Israel trip was Floy’s “first big trip” after the crash, “and I wasn’t sure how she was going to react” to it, Elmer said. But the journey went smoothly.

“As long as I was up in the air, I was fine,” Olson said. “The takeoff and landing are the times when I’m tense. I wouldn’t use the word ‘scared.’. . . I would say that in flying, I am somewhat alert, and I don’t feel comfortable with those air pockets.”

Other Leisure World residents have different feelings about surviving the accident.

Lura Waldrip said she and her husband, Herbert, both jumped from a wing of the Pan American jet after the collision. Her leg was broken in the fall, Waldrip said, but Herbert “put his arms under me and dragged me away.”

Now at the 10th anniversary of the crash, Waldrip said, the accident is much on her mind. “The date is always with us, but it’s been 10 years,” she said. “The bad part was at the first, with the nightmares, but that’s over.”

Byron Ellerbrock, 76, said he and his wife, Grace “haven’t dwelled on it (the accident’s anniversary).”

The couple escaped from the burning plane by climbing over seats and getting to the emergency door. Byron jumped from the wing, breaking his pelvis in three places when he hit the ground, and Grace slipped off the wing but didn’t break any bones.

Then Grace dragged Byron away from the plane. “She weighs about 130 pounds, and I weigh about 200,” Ellerbrock said, chuckling. Grace was later featured in a Time magazine story about the accident.

Right Place, Right Time

He survived, Ellerbrock said, only because “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

None of the crash survivors said they were keeping tabs on each other, although immediately after the accident they stayed in touch.

Olson said she would like to get together with the other Leisure World survivors some time. “I have thought it would be nice to have a get-together of all the people in this community who were in the accident, but people haven’t wanted to,” she said. “They just want to forget it.”

Ellerbrock confirmed that attitude. “Why make a big whoop-dee-doo out of it?” he asked. “It was an accident. It’s over. We survived. I don’t see any point in rehashing it.”