'We Need an Airport . . . We're Coming Down Someplace' : Flight 232: Countdown to Crisis

Times Staff Writers

J. P. Martin was only half-listening to the radio scanner Wednesday afternoon.

The scanner was a dull hum in the office of Martin Airport, which Martin operates with his father. The monotonous jargon between pilots and air traffic controllers at Sioux Gateway Airport across the Mississippi was always there, but nobody really listened to it.

And then Martin heard a jet pilot's voice warn that he'd lost an engine and that his plane was suffering complete hydraulic failure.

And he started listening.

Heard a Shaky Voice

The plane was United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10 heading from Denver to Chicago. The speaker was either the pilot, Capt. Alfred C. Haynes, or the co-pilot, First Officer W. R. Records. Martin couldn't be sure. The pilot was talking to Sioux City approach control. His voice was shaky but it wasn't cracking, Martin thought. He was calm. His crippled plane had fallen from 31,000 feet to 11,000 feet and now he didn't know where the hell he was going to put it.

"We need an airport, an interstate," the pilot said, "a gravel road, a field. We're coming down someplace."

Inside Flight 232, David Lansberger, a balding, 40-year-old president of a Caldwell, N.J., firm that makes equipment for the handicapped, would have been surprised by the gravity of the conversation.

At about 3:16 p.m., as flight attendants were cleaning up a lunch of chicken strips and potato chips, Lansberger and his 281 fellow passengers had heard a large, very heavy bump--hard enough to throw several attendants to the floor--a loud bang and a small difference in the way the engines sounded. They had felt the plane lose a lot of altitude. But the plane had seemed to climb back for a little while, and Capt. Haynes' first announcement on the intercom--that the plane had "lost engine No. 2" but could still continue flying to Chicago--seemed relatively reassuring.

Lansberger flies 50,000 to 100,000 miles a year. He is used to the imperfection of flight. It would only be later that he would realize that "I didn't get the impact of the word 'lost' at first." It would only be later that he would appreciate the vagaries business travelers take for granted. He had missed an earlier flight and had to take Flight 232. His assigned row on the earlier flight was 25. On Flight 232 it was changed to 13. Most people in the middle section of Flight 232--roughly between Rows 9 and 19--would walk off the crumbled jet without injury. Most people farther back and farther up would not.

Unaware of Problem

The passengers had no idea that the plane's mobility was so limited that Haynes couldn't turn it to the left and could turn to the right only a little. Nor did they know he had little if any control of the elevators, making it impossible to pull the plane up.

Nor did they know that Haynes, for all his 33 years as a United pilot, no longer knew precisely where he was in the sky.

Haynes, following standard operating procedure during a crisis, made radio contact with his airline's maintenance center in San Francisco, seeking out a mechanical expert. Nothing worked. Where should he try to land? At one point controllers considered Dubuque on the eastern edge of Iowa. Three minutes later, while passengers were watching a videotape of this year's Triple Crown horse races, Haynes reported he had lost all control of the plane. Controllers told him to land 300 miles sooner, in Sioux City.

Within 10 minutes of the explosion of the tail engine, Marian Health Care Center's emergency communications center, one of two major hospitals in the city, received a distress call from aviation officials.

The hospital was told that the DC-10 was unlikely to reach closer than five miles from the airport and would probably crash-land. This was precisely the disaster that local emergency officials had practiced earlier this year.

At the local fire department, dispatcher Louise Keleher heard the insistent ring of the red "crash" phone. She picked it up and answered, as always, "Downtown is on."

The control tower at the airport was on the other end of the line. The fire department went to Alert 2.

Meanwhile, air traffic controllers, trying to bring Haynes toward the airport, were feeding him radar vectors.

"Turn left," a controller said at one point, adding a specific heading.

"Hey," the pilot's voice answered, "I can only make a right turn."

At the fire department, the emergency was upgraded to Alert 3--the worst.

As Capt. Haynes drew closer to Sioux City, he expressed serious doubts to controllers that he could make it. He thought about trying to land on a major highway. He was pushing the controls to the wall with no response. Lacking control of his wing surfaces and steering rudder, all he could do was vary the thrust of his wing engines to turn the plane.

Haynes was trying to do the impossible, the equivalent of "moving a 10-ton truck with a feather," another DC-10 pilot, Bob Lindquist, said Thursday from his home in Orange County. "You start losing hydraulic power, you ain't got diddly-squat."

The plane began to circle.

The explosion that had destroyed the plane's rear engine had thrown pieces of the plane into the sky. The plane was still airborne when field workers returning from a coffee break at Alta, 60 miles east of Sioux City, discovered an 8-foot by 12-foot section of the plane in a field. Four miles away from them, Allen and Phil Jahde found three pieces of the plane scattered in their cornfield. Phil Jahde said one piece was a 6-foot-long metal band, engraved ENG 2.

It was 3:40 p.m. when Capt. Haynes told the passengers what was going to happen. The flight crew would instruct them how to brace themselves, he said. The crew was calm. "You got the feeling they'd done this 10 times before," one passenger said.

An Indianapolis accountant traveling with his sister and her two sons was using the plane's pay telephone to call relatives in Chicago who were to meet him at O'Hare International Airport when flight attendants told him he'd have to sit down and prepare for the landing.

The plane was rocking from side to side. Haynes was trying to control it. A quiet tension filled the cabin. People put away books and games and paid attention to flight attendants' instructions.

Grab your ankles and put your heads between your knees, the crew said.

The passengers did. The four minutes that followed were going to be the longest of anyone's life.

As the passengers sat with their bodies tensely folded, Dr. Askar Qalbani, director of Marian's medical laboratory, was about to tee off on the 13th hole of the Sioux City Country Club along with two other medical colleagues when someone from the pro shop came running with the news of the pending disaster. Qalbani's wife, Fahima, also a doctor, had been alerted by hospital personnel. Qalbani raced back.

Everyone seemed to be racing back.

Thanks to a decade of twice-a-year disaster drills, such as an imaginary crash of a jet in a cornfield earlier this year, the combined response of Sioux City and Woodbury County enabled hundreds of medical and rescue personnel to arrive at the airport and hospitals by the time Haynes made his tortured approach.

In an attempt to allow Haynes to use the airport's longest runway, Runway 31, controllers vectored him around the city in a trio of 360-degree turns--always to the plane's right. But they could not line him up properly. Haynes was running out of time. There was another runway, Runway 22, unused for the last two years, that was shorter.

'Can't Do Anything Else'

"That's what I'm going to take, because I can't do anything else," the pilot told controllers.

The controllers told the pilot there was some old maintenance equipment parked near the runway. Get it out, he said. The pilot asked what was at the far end of the runway. He was afraid that without braking power the plane would skid past the end of the pavement.

A cornfield was at the end, controllers said.

"It's all yours," a controller said.

"OK," the pilot said.

The plane came in for a landing. Haynes warned passengers again to brace themselves.

A passenger named Mell McDonnell, a writer from Denver headed for a business appointment in Buffalo, N.Y., started thinking "about what would be the best way to die."

She began to recite an untitled Emily Dickinson poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That purchase in the soul

That sings the song without the tune

And never stops at all.

On the ground, the emergency crews watched the plane wobble in.

When it got within sight of the airstrip, "we thought, 'All right!' " said David J. Greco, emergency medical director at Marian Health Care Center, who had gone up in an emergency helicopter to monitor the rescue efforts.

Then the worst happened. The plane's right wing dipped and scraped the ground a half mile short of the runway. The plane cartwheeled in a flaming ball and exploded.

Everyone watching knew everyone was going to die.

'Nose Section Disappeared'

"The flames were coming in the airplane while we were skidding down the runway," said passenger John Transue, 40, of Milwaukee. "We started to roll and while we were rolling it seemed to me the flames shot into the cabin . . . the whole nose section of the plane just disappeared."

So did the rear section of the plane.

Except for the middle, there was nothing.

Greco's helicopter touched down a couple of minutes later. He saw the ground littered with thousands of tiny chunks of debris, only inches in size, and dead bodies that had been thrown from the fuselage. Limbs abounded.

And then Greco saw the damndest thing.

People walking toward him.

They had walked out of a large piece of fuselage--the middle section--that had sprawled upside down in the adjacent cornfield.

Some Scarcely Scratched

"It just amazed us that . . . there were people not even injured at all, barely scratched," he said.

Most of the passengers from that section fled the fuselage before it, too, burst into flame.

The crash left a swath of charred runway and strewed bits of people's lives over the wide expanse: two sets of golf clubs, a wallet photo of a brunette in her prom dress, a Reebok tennis shoe, a purple hair dryer, one black high-heeled shoe and a collection of Marilyn Monroe photographs.

Flight 232 crashed at 3:57 p.m., four minutes before it had been scheduled to arrive in Chicago.

Shortly after 4 p.m., departure information for United Flight 232, which was to continue on to Philadelphia, disappeared from the television monitors at Gate C-11 at O'Hare, United's principal hub.

Strange Feeling

"It was eerie," said Frank Storione, 25, who was waiting to fly home on that flight. "It didn't say 'delayed,' it didn't say 'canceled.' And then they asked people waiting for that plane to go to the customer service counter."

For persons with relatives and friends on the flight from Denver the ordeal began. It was to continue well into the night in the posh United Red Carpet Room on the C concourse where families and friends were isolated from the press and comforted by clergymen and United personnel.

Five hours after the crash, little information had filtered back to the roughly 40 people waiting and weeping in Chicago.

In Sioux City, the race had been on to pull injured survivors from the wreckage and the tall, rain-soaked cornfield.

Rescuers had struggled against what doctors call the "golden hour," the critical hourlong period after a severe injury takes place when chances of survival are greatest if a victim receives emergency treatment.

The injured were scattered along more than a mile of the airfield. Rescuers had to run 200 yards between patients. Following established procedure, members of the local air national guard unit mobilized for the disaster set up a triage unit in a grassy field about 200 yards from the intact fuselage, and guardsmen and ambulance crews put the injured on "spine boards" and carried them to that central point to be evaluated by doctors.

It was agonizing to locate patients among the debris and piles of bodies.

"We had to listen for moans," Greco said. " . . . everybody was so badly injured, that there was very little motion so it was amazing how everybody was relying on their ears more than their eyes and people (rescue workers) would wave their hand when they heard a moan. We'd unbury a pile."

By the time ambulances wheeled in the first barrage of victims to the hospitals about 20 minutes after the crash, more than 100 medical personnel, including neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons, eye, ear and nose specialists and family practitioners, were standing by.

At least 40 critically ill persons were found among the debris.

"If this would have happened in a remote area where we relied on helicopter service only, it would have been a disaster," Greco said Thursday. "If they hadn't reached emergency resources within the first hour, those 40 critical patients that I initially scanned never would have survived."

As it was, only nine of those persons had died as of Thursday.

Those survivors well enough to dial a telephone scrambled to reassure loved ones.

Flight attendant Virginia Jane Murray, 35, phoned her parents in Chester, S.C., to say she was all right.

"She said she was tumbling," said her father, Don Murray. "The walls were coming in. She said a hole opened up and the sunlight came in and she climbed out the hole. She said she knew the Lord opened up that hole."

At Denver's Stapleton International Airport, Rabbi Avrohom Brownstein and his wife, Chaya, rushed from their home to United's Red Carpet Club, where relatives of the many Denver passengers had been asked to assemble. They knew only that their 9-year-old son, Ysrael, was aboard Flight 232. It was his first trip by himself. He had been on his way to Philadelphia to visit a little friend.

Approaching the Red Carpet Club, Mrs. Brownstein was so overcome with despair that she could not walk through the doors and was half-carried by her husband and the United employees trying to comfort her.

Later, the doors slid open and the Brownsteins emerged, their faces weary but jubilant. "He's all right!" the rabbi cried. "He's got a broken arm! He always said he wanted a broken arm like his other friends. Well, now he's got one! We're just grateful to God." They grabbed a plane for Sioux City.

In Denver, Garry Priest's mother, Jeri, was sure her son had not survived.

"I just knew Garry had died because he'd called that morning and told me goodby," she explained. "He travels a lot for his job and around 11 a.m., the phone rang and it was him. He said he was at the airport heading to Chicago, and he said, 'I just thought I'd call and tell you goodby and say I love you.' Garry never says goodby."

When she heard about the crash, Jeri Priest rushed home in a panic.

About 30 minutes passed, and suddenly the phone rang in the family's modest brick ranch house. It was Garry, calling from a National Guard station in Sioux City to tell them he was OK. He suffered only a black eye and a cut finger.

The Priests didn't hear anything from United for several hours.

"They said, 'This is so and so from United Airlines and we're calling to let you know that Garry Priest was on Flight 232 that crashed, but his condition is unknown,' " Mrs. Priest said. "I said, 'Well, I know. He already called to say he was OK.

"I'm not going to say one bad word about United, though," she added, "because I think that pilot did a helluva job."

She said that the number of survivors and the flood of journalists into Sioux City made getting a hotel room impossible, so Garry and his boss, Bruce Benham, were taken home for the night by the weatherman at Channel 9 in Sioux City. Both flew home first class Thursday morning on a commercial United flight that stopped over in Lincoln, Neb.

"They say you should always get right back on the horse that bucked you off," Garry Priest said. "I've never been bucked like that before, though!"

As remarkable as the ratio of survivors on Flight 232 was the way Sioux City and surrounding cities mobilized on Wednesday night and Thursday.

There were two doctors to every injured passenger at times Wednesday night. The chief of staff of St. Luke's Medical Center chartered an airplane and flew home from vacation in Minnesota. Psychology students from the University of South Dakota in nearby Vermillion came to the hospital to help with counseling. Supplies arrived from hospitals in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Omaha, Neb.

"We probably got five months of inventory inside of three hours," a hospital official said.

Many local businesses and residents donated food, clothing and toiletries to Briar Cliff College, a Catholic school on a hill outside of town, where 55 survivors spent the night. Some 300 citizens stood in a block-and-a-half long line to give blood. The Siouxland Blood Bank reported that 305 units of blood were available at the two hospitals--four times as much as was needed.

Even before the crash, the disaster team had lined up 194 units of blood in hospital blood banks and received shipments of 111 more units from another bank, far more than the 70 units that were eventually needed throughout the night. Another 200 lined up at a blood bank in Omaha.

Eight Roman Catholic priests were dispatched by the chancellor of the diocese of Sioux City. They anointed those near death at the crash site and at hospitals and offered prayers for those who had died. They counseled survivors at the college.

At daybreak Thursday, National Guardsman began collecting pieces of wreckage and carrying body bags to ambulances and refrigerated trailers.

Iowa's governor, Terry E. Branstad, visited Capt. Haynes and other crew members in their hospital rooms.

It was a poignant moment for the governor. Eleven years ago, while campaigning for lieutenant governor, Branstad said he had been in a small plane that made a troubled landing at the same airport after losing hydraulic pressure.

"I can appreciate how they feel," he said of the survivors.

Haynes was scratched badly but in fair condition. He grew emotional when he talked about those who died, the governor said. He expressed his thanks to the controllers. He said he'd been worried that he might land on houses.

And he spoke wistfully about the distance--a couple of thousand feet--that stood between a happy ending and a bittersweet tragedy.

First Officer Records put it this way to a clergyman who visited his hospital room:

"If we could have had 10 more seconds, we could have put it on the runway."

Contributing to the coverage of the crash of Flight 232 were staff writers Eric Malnic, J. Michael Kennedy and Bob Secter in Sioux City, Iowa; Larry Green in Chicago; Tamara Jones in Denver; David Lauter and Art Pine in Washington; and Bob Baker, Douglas Frantz, Denise Gellene, Ben Sullivan and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles.

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