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Flight 255: Life or Death Turned on Twists of Fate : 7 Who Died in Crash Shared Hope for Their Future in Orange County; 3 Who Missed Plane Saved by Luck

Times Staff Writer

Joanne Surowitz awoke last Sunday morning in a Detroit suburb, anticipating that by day’s end she would be reunited with her family in their new Tustin home. The family had moved west earlier in the year, but Joanne stayed in Michigan to finish her senior year of high school and to spend time with her boyfriend.

She was booked on a Continental flight from Detroit. At the airport she was told the plane had developed mechanical problems, so she went to Northwest Airlines--and got one of the last open seats on Flight 255.

In Toledo, Ohio, a week ago today, Hidi Ratliff was eager to get home to Santa Ana and begin cheerleading practice. Two weeks visiting her father and other relatives had been enough. When she finished packing, she called home to confirm that her mother would be waiting at John Wayne Airport when Northwest Flight 255 landed at 10:35 p.m.

Also boarding the Northwest jet at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport was a Laguna Hills couple on the last leg of a two-week trip back to New York. There was a Fountain Valley nurse, returning early from a family vacation and a Saddleback College football player flying back for the start of practice. And there was a Laguna Niguel businessman, ending a long weekend of partying with his sister in Detroit, heading back to work.

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The Plane Was Packed

Those from Orange County on the flight generally mirrored the overall passenger list. It was a Sunday night crowd in August--casually dressed vacationers, family travelers, not as many business people as would have been on a midweek flight. And the plane was packed.

It pulled away from the terminal into the muggy Michigan twilight nearly on schedule. But 2,500 miles away, friends and family gathered a few hours later in the fluorescent glow of John Wayne Airport to greet a plane that would never arrive.

They knew little of what had happened beyond what appeared on the Northwest flight announcement screen: “Canceled Flight. See Agent.”

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Flight 255, bound for Phoenix and then Orange County, was airborne only a few moments before it exploded into a fiery ball of jet fuel, metal and body parts on a Detroit highway at the end of Runway 3C. All but one of the 153 passengers and crew members were killed.

Luck--the explanation for the unexplainable twists and turns that spare some from disasters--was evident here, too.

Booked on Flight 255, Robert and David McKellar missed the plane home to Orange County when the car they had taken to the Detroit airport blew a radiator hose.

William Wilder, a San Clemente engineer, was in the Detroit airport reading a Western novel but did not hear the Flight 255 boarding announcement, realizing too late that the plane had left. His wife, waiting nervously at John Wayne Airport for news of the severity of the Northwest crash, never knew of her husband’s inattentiveness--and good fortune--until she spotted him in the Orange County terminal arriving on another airline from Detroit.

“When I saw him come off that plane,” Rebecca Wilder recalled, “I could hardly wait to put my arms around him.”

But luck works both ways and last Sunday in Detroit was no different.

At least four Orange County-bound passengers on Flight 255 were scheduled to catch an earlier Continental flight from Detroit.

But when a wing problem grounded the Continental plane, the airline rebooked Virginia (Ginger) Robinson, the nurse; Joanne Surowitz; Rhett Taylor Bushong, the football player, and Denise Best, a Detroit businesswoman, on Northwest Flight 255.

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Each needed to be in Orange County that night.

The plane they boarded was a long-bodied MD-80, an updated version of the DC-9.

That aircraft had started the day at John Wayne Airport, where crews cleaned and fueled it at dawn for the cross-country workout that followed. Shortly after 8 a.m. it was in the air, headed east for stops in Minneapolis, Detroit, Saginaw, Mich., and back to Detroit to pick up passengers for the trip west again.

As the afternoon shadows grew longer, passengers booked on Flight 255 began converging on the Detroit airport.

Raphael and Lisa Tombasco arrived from Buffalo on a connecting flight.

They had spent two weeks in Upstate New York, visiting family and friends, but now were anxious to get back to their newly bought El Toro home.

Married last October, this was the couple’s first vacation since their honeymoon.

They wanted to spend it in and around their hometown of Corning and the bucolic countryside with their most valued possessions--family and friends. They sailed, played baseball and attended a friend’s wedding, all the while talking of their new life in California.

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They had just bought their first home, a three-bedroom house in a quiet, woodsy El Toro neighborhood. As soon as escrow closed, they would move from the rented town house in Laguna Hills. The would hang their “Welcome Friends” wreath at the new house, where there would be room for visitors and children they hoped to have soon.

During the visit, Lisa, a 26-year-old nurse at a Laguna Hills convalescent home, went to Syracuse to visit her sister, Dawn Van Patten, and learned that she was engaged. The two went together to have Lisa’s bridesmaid’s dress fitted.

Saturday night before the flight home, Lisa, Raphael, Dawn and her finance had a feast, eating dozens of clams and talking about the future--Dawn’s wedding in October and Raphael’s dream of traveling someday to Italy.

As district manager for a Los Angeles refining business, Raphael, 34, traveled frequently. The trip back on Flight 255 would add several thousand miles to his frequent flier plan for a free ticket. The ticket was to be a present for his mother to visit the Tombascos at their new home in El Toro.

Hidi Ratliff, 16, reached Detroit, after a short commuter flight from Toledo, Ohio, where she had been visiting her father.

Hidi had flown to Ohio with her mother, Mary Ann, late last month. They had moved to California 14 years ago after her parents divorced, but they flew back each summer for the big family reunion--which was always on the first Sunday in August.

Mary Ann flew back Aug. 4 and Hidi wanted to return then, too, Mary Ann recalls.

“I told her ‘no, you need to stay and spend time with your father’ ” said Mary Ann Ratliff, “We picked the 16th for her to come home because cheerleading practice (at Costa Mesa High School) started the 17th.”

Her father, Donnie Ratliff, is thankful for the two weeks he had with Hidi. He took her out in his boat and they water-skied on Lake Erie. “Whatever I did, she did with me,” he said. “We’ve stayed very close.”

The Saturday before she left, Hidi went to say goodby to her grandmother, Thelma Lesniewski. She showed her the sweat shirt she had bought for her new boyfriend--stenciled with his name, Jim, on one side, and the make of his motorcycle, Honda, on the other--back in Santa Ana. Her grandmother reminded her to go see one of her aunts, who was old and ill, because it might be the last chance she had.

On Sunday, Mary Ann Ratliff was busy working in her kitchen when she got a call from Hidi.

Her daughter had been out with friends at an amusement park on Lake Erie until 2:30 a.m., and her father was angry.

“She was mad at her Dad and he was mad at her,” the mother said. “She started to go on about it, and I said, ‘Hidi, can this wait until you’re home tonight?’ ”

Around 5 p.m., Hidi and her father left for the airport in Toledo, for the short flight to Detroit. They arrived early, got a bite to eat and then Donnie saw his daughter off at the gate.

She wore a white skirt, a white sequined sweater and silver and white boots, with matching jewelry. Her acrylic nails were painted a peach color--which would help coroners identify her body a few days later.

“I gave her some money, and we kissed,” Donnie Ratliff said. “She said ‘See you at Christmastime.’ ”

Tanned from a day of boating and beer drinking in the hot Detroit sun, Lori Frank drove her brother, Peter, to the airport Sunday evening. It had been several years since the two had seen each other, and there was much to catch up on.

Peter Frank, 25, had moved to Orange County in February from Florida, taking a job as a marketing manager for an electronics wholesale company in Irvine. He was traveling a lot and doing well. Although he had split with his girlfriend, who had also moved here from Florida, he had a growing circle of friends. And for a self-described “sports nut,” what better place to be than Southern California.

Before boarding Flight 255, he called his roommate, Mike Daniels, to make sure he would be at John Wayne Airport to pick him up.

“I started giving him a hard time, you know, like friends do,” Daniels said. “I told him I had to be at work early the next day and I didn’t feel like driving to the airport. He finally bribed me by offering to pick up my lunch the next day.”

After kissing their two children goodby at her mother’s home in Hillman, Mich., Bill Robinson drove his wife, Virginia, to the Detroit airport and watched her board Continental Flight 657 bound for Orange County.

It was the end of a two-week vacation to visit family in Michigan. Bill and the children Teri, 11, and Scott, 16, were staying two more days. She knew they would join her Tuesday back home in Fountain Valley, but she had to be at work Monday morning.

She had wanted to drive to Michigan this summer in the couple’s new Chevy Blazer. But she could not bring herself to ask for three weeks off and, besides, money was tight. Bill had lost his job earlier in the year with a toy manufacturer.

So the family flew to Michigan.

Now, Continental officials were telling passengers there was a problem with one of the plane’s wings. The passengers left the plane; some transferred to flights bound for Los Angeles International Airport. Robinson took a seat on Northwest Flight 255.

Her luggage was placed on another Continental flight to John Wayne Airport.

She didn’t tell anyone. She knew her friend, Bonnie Monary, was planning to meet the Continental flight. But there would be plenty of time to call when the plane landed at Phoenix.

Flying never bothered the 45-year-old nurse. A devout member of Faith Lutheran Church in Huntington Beach, she believed that whatever happened was out of her hands.

On the phone, Joanne Surowitz tried to cheer up her younger brother, Brian.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she told him the night before she was scheduled to fly west to the family’s new home in north Tustin. She was excited about the trip, her first to California.

She planned to spend a month in Orange County before returning for her freshman year at Michigan State.

Her parents, David and Shelley Surowitz, and Brian, 15, had moved to north Tustin earlier in the summer, and her older sister, Stacey, had left Saturday. Joanne, 18, had stayed until Sunday so she could spend the day with her boyfriend of five years, 21-year-old David Wilner.

After breakfast Sunday, she packed and then visited her grandmother. As Joanne and David began to leave, her grandmother cried.

“Grandma, you act like you’ll never see me again!” Joanne said. “I’ll be back in a month. Look at Grandma, David, she thinks I’m not coming back!”

The teasing brought a smile to her grandmother’s face, and they kissed.

Along the way, they stopped for lunch and to buy some magazines. They bought three souviakias, and ate one each.

“Are you still hungry?” Joanne asked David. They shared the third one, bought Joanne’s magazines at Arbor Drugs and continued to the airport.

In one of the magazines, Joanne found her weekly horoscope. It was a good time for her to get engaged, the stars said.

David had bought her a silver ring a week earlier when they had gone to a nearby lake. “I guess this can be our engagement ring,” she said.

“I loved her so much,” David remembered, sitting in the basement of the Surowitz home last week with Joanne’s family and friends. “Nobody will ever replace her.”

David watched Joanne board Continental Flight 657 and saw the plane taxi away. At 7 p.m. Joanne called him at home and said her plane had been forced back to the terminal because of mechanical difficulties and would be delayed a few hours.

“Do you want me to come out there?” David asked. Joanne said no, she might get on another flight any minute. Just before 8 she called and said she was leaving on Northwest Flight 255.

“You live 95% of your life for your children,” said Joanne’s father, David. “It’s hard to go back and work knowing some of what I would have worked for isn’t there.”

Rhett Bushong finally had it worked out. A standout athlete, he took a year off after graduating from Mission Viejo High School in 1986 to figure what he wanted to do with his life. Now, sitting aboard Flight 255, he knew, and was anxious to fly home and get started. He had been at a family reunion in Toledo but left early.

“He wanted to go into sports medicine and attending Saddleback College was the first step,” said his father, Reid Bushong, a science teacher at a Newport Beach middle school.

Part of the plan was football. Fall practice was to open the day after he returned. He was not expected to start, but he had a chance of seeing lots of playing time. A tall, skinny redhead, the Saddleback coaches nicknamed him “Red.”

Bushong had been booked on the Continental flight, but asked to be transferred when it developed problems. A Continental spokesman said he was “very eager” to get back to Orange County that night. “He said had things to accomplish.”

Denise Barton was booked on Flight 255 last Sunday, but not out of Detroit. She planned to board the plane when in stopped in Phoenix, en route to Orange County.

A financial consultant from Huntington Beach, she had been visiting her parents in the Arizona capital. She had just checked her baggage at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport when the ticketing agent gave her the news: Flight 255 had crashed in Detroit.

“I took a couple of moments and just stood there,” said Barton, 30. “My parents were still with me and we just went back home.”

She returned to the Northwest counter the next night, choosing a seat for the same flight with the same number. She had slept little Sunday night, and now she was chain-smoking as she waited at Gate 26 for this new Flight 255.

About 10 people boarded the plane in Phoenix.

Already on the plane were the McKellar brothers who had missed Flight 255 the night before because of their car trouble. They said they had no qualms about taking the same flight home.

“You just think it can’t happen to the same flight twice,” said David McKellar of Dana Point. “What are the odds?”

Once in the air out of Phoenix, Barton relaxed somewhat and began talking of plans to work for Delaware Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. She even swapped phone numbers with a reporter and said ‘keep in touch’ when the plane landed in Orange County.

As the passengers disembarked Monday night, they passed a TV screen showing flight schedules.

Next to Northwest Flight 255 it read: “Arrived.”

Times staff writers Lynn Smith and Alan Jalon in Orange County and Bob Schwartz in Detroit contributed to this article.


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