Teary eyed and choking with emotion, flight attendants who survived last week’s crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Iowa described their terrifying final minutes aboard the DC-10 Friday and called on the Federal Aviation Administration to equip planes with special seats for infants and small children.
“To come out and to look and see nothing but debris I said, ‘Oh God, where is the other part of the aircraft,’ ” recalled Donna McGrady, a flight attendant working in the rear portion of the jumbo jet.
McGrady was one of seven flight attendants among the 185 survivors of the fiery crash at the Sioux Gateway Airport. Five of them met with reporters early Friday before attending a private memorial service for flight attendant Rene Le Beau, who was among 111 people killed in the disaster.
“It was like a roller-coaster ride with special effects,” said Timothy Owens, who was stationed by a door in the center of the aircraft and who had been graduated from United’s flight attendant school just a month and two days before the crash.
“I had my eyes open. I saw overhead bins and coils and wiring from the ceiling starting to fall,” Owens said. “The tail section came apart and I saw a big beam of sunlight just coming through the back . . . . We started to roll over on the right wing. We tumbled two or three times. I was totally smothered and surrounded by debris.”
“The impact was like no impact we had ever gone through before,” said Janice Brown, the plane’s chief flight attendant, who was praised by co-workers for maintaining calm on the plane during its crisis-filled final 41 minutes.
Knocked unconscious by the crash landing, Brown said she has a recollection of “fire that flashed by and went over me” as she hung upside down trapped by her body weight pushing against the seat’s harness. A passenger helped free her.
“I stood up and that’s when I remember having my first visual experience,” Brown said. “It was a man in a 45-degree head-down angle with his ankles pinned in the debris. There was nothing recognizable. It was very dark. I immediately went over and pulled his ankles free and then I heard a passenger say there was an opening.”
Brown said that there were several infants on the plane and she urged passengers to put them on the floor and hold them during the emergency landing. In response to a reporter’s question, she said that she believed it was necessary to install child restraints on planes.
“They certainly do it in cars and I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it in airplanes,” she said, drawing applause from roughly 250 United flight attendants who crowded into the O’Hare Hilton ballroom for the press conference and memorial service.
And flight attendant Susan White urged regulators to consider moving seats farther apart.
“Quite a few men were unable to get into a brace position by leaning over and holding their ankles,” White said. Those that used the alternative of putting their hands on the seat in front of them “came out with knots on their heads and I think the seats are a little bit too close,” she said, also drawing applause.
“My biggest fear of flying was to go down in a crash,” said Virginia (Jan) Murray, who was working at the front of the main cabin across from Brown and who was also trapped in her seat upside down after the plane came to a stop.
“I fell to the floor, I saw green. I smelled fresh cut grass and I ran to the daylight,” Murray said. “When I got out there was a passenger . . . and we were running parallel to each other and I said, ‘Are We alive? Are we alive?’ It was such a euphoric feeling . . . . I couldn’t believe I was alive. I really thought I was gone.”
Three Denver-based United flight attendants who were on a layover in Sioux City when they heard about the crash and rushed to the airport to assist survivors also met with reporters Friday.
“I hope no one in their career or in their life has to see what we saw,” said Cathy Buckley, one of the three.
The 75-minute news conference was punctuated with tears from both the surviving attendants and those who were there as observers.
And it ended with tears.
“I feel guilt that I’m here and all the other people didn’t make it,” White said.