Dorelia Rivera peered out the window on Aeromexico Flight 2431 and saw the sky turn black as hail pelted the twin-engine jet idling on the tarmac.
But the Elmwood Park woman told her 14-year-old daughter Kayla: Don’t worry, the pilot would turn back to the gate to wait out the storm.
The plane did begin to move — but toward the runway, not the gate.
As Rivera and Kayla had done on countless flights before, more out of habit than fear, they each made the sign of the cross.
Just hours earlier on Tuesday, as they waited to board the plane at the Durango airport in north-central Mexico, Rivera, Kayla and six others who also were on their way home to Chicago had been talking about the past two weeks. About their wonderful vacation to Rivera’s ancestral home, a mountain village too remote for phone service — and their relief that no one had gotten sick from contaminated water or hurt traveling the region’s treacherous roads.
Now, shortly after the plane — with 99 passengers aboard, many of them from Chicago, and a crew of four — hurtled along the runway to take off, the front wheels lifted off the ground and the nose tipped toward the sky, Rivera felt they were in far greater peril.
“Within a minute of us doing the sign of the cross, the plane just started shaking really, really terribly,” said Rivera, 44, who works as an advocate for people with rare diseases.
Rivera travels a lot for her job. She knows turbulence. But this was nothing like that. The plane jerked up and down.
“My daughter’s head kept hitting the top of the luggage compartment, and so I just put my arms around her,” Rivera said.
She clutched Kayla’s hand. She told her they would be OK. But Rivera didn’t believe it.
And then the plane seemed to just fall, slamming nose-first into the ground. There was no time for the flight attendants even to warn passengers to brace for the impact.
Soon, screams filled the air — from children and grandparents and families returning from baptisms, quinceañeras. The plane, on its belly, tore through mud and grass a few hundred yards past the end of the runaway. The impact ripped loose the engines, and the plane came to a jarring halt.
“I looked back and saw smoke and flames literally two aisles back,” said Rivera, who was seated in row five.
Luggage fell from overhead bins and clogged the aisle. Frantic parents pushed their children over seats and toward the daylight that poured in from an emergency exit near the front.
Rivera felt certain the plane would explode. She and her daughter tried to push their way into the aisle but were pushed back by other passengers rushing to get out.
“I just grabbed [Kayla’s] arm,” Rivera said. ”She’s, like, ‘Mom, you’re hurting me!’ I said, ‘You’re not staying on this plane!’ ”
They tumbled into the aisle and scrambled out of the plane and into a storm of marble-sized hail. Strangers held hands, some losing their shoes in the mud as they ran from the burning plane. Rivera’s daughter, who is blind in one eye, lost her glasses in the heavy rain.
“I didn’t look back, and I didn’t let my daughter look back until we were half a mile [away],” Rivera said.
Remarkably, all 103 people on board survived.
Officials have said a violent gust of wind hit the plane shortly after takeoff. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Rivera said the pilot had no business trying to take off in such a storm.
“The pilot has the last word on weather, and he decided otherwise — the wrong way, obviously,” she said.
The next day, Rivera, her daughter and others — some in neck braces and in wheelchairs — boarded another Aeromexico flight for Mexico City before taking a second flight back to Chicago.
“We were terrified,” Rivera said. But, she said, “People had a lot of injuries, and they just needed to get home.”
As the wheels left the runway and the plane took off Wednesday, Rivera and her daughter looked out the window. They could see below them the charred wreckage of Flight 2431.
Back home, Rivera spent Thursday trying to replace her identification and credit cards, lost in the storm.
Hearing that everyone had survived was “probably one of the happiest moments of my life,” she said.
Her plans for this weekend? “I want to enjoy the nothingness of life. I just want to relax.”