What a Plane Crash Feels Like: The Inside Story of an American Aviation Disaster — and Miracle

In 1989, United 232 crash-landed, splintered apart and burst into flames: 184 of 296 people lived. Here's the story

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Excerpted from “Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival”

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?

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