Surviving crew of doomed United Flight 232 reunites for play
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At 2:09 p.m. on July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 took off from Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, bound for O’Hare Airport, with continuing service to Philadelphia.
At 3:16 p.m., a fan disk on its tail-mounted engine failed, disintegrating at 37,000 feet. The 296 people on board — including four pilots and nine flight attendants — felt a sudden jolt.
“There was a loud noise. The No. 2 engine exploded. Then, the plane dropped. We had been handing out lunch service, with drinks behind it,” says Timothy Owens, of Glendale Heights.
Owens was a 27-year-old flight attendant back then who’d been on the job for two months.
The DC-10 would crash-land in a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 110 passengers and one flight attendant. Amazingly, though, 184 people would survive, thanks to the heroic work of the pilots and a flight instructor, who happened to be on board, and rescue work on the ground by the crew.
Janice Brown, now 75, of Schaumburg, was the chief flight attendant.
“We had all been flying together for four days. It was our last leg. We were coming home,” says Brown, who was 48 at the time and had been flying for United for 14 years. “The service was organized. We were humming along. Everything was great. And, in one second, the world exploded.”
Eight survivors from Flight 232’s 13-member crew converged on Chicago for a reunion this weekend to see a theatrical adaptation of the tragedy they lived through.
The play — “United Flight 232” by Vanessa Stalling, which continues at House Theatre of Chicago through May 1 — is based on the 2014 book by Evanston writer Laurence Gonzales “Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival.”
The accident is cited in aviation annals as an example of successful crew management and ground rescue — factors credited with preventing even greater loss of life.
Bonded by the tragedy, the crew have become family to each other, sharing momentous life occasions. And they remember the crash like it was yesterday.
“When the plane leveled off, everyone was trying to figure out what was going on,” says Owens, who’s still a flight attendant with United. “The captain didn’t know what was going on. The initial thought was we’d just lost one engine. A few minutes later, we learned there was no hydraulics left to control anything.”
Alfred C. Haynes was 232’s captain. His first officer was William R. Records and second officer was Dudley J. Dvorak.
Dennis E. Fitch, a DC-10 flight instructor who happened to be on board, is credited with helping the pilots guide the crippled plane through the emergency landing. He died of brain cancer in 2012.
“We put on our game faces,” says Brown, who flew nine more years for United before retiring in 1998. “I was determined to have calm, which gives a chance for survival. I briefed flight attendants, and we started picking up service items. We moved through emergency evacuation procedures.”
The flight attendant who died was Rene LeBeau, who was on-duty though not assigned to the flight.
Attendants who worked the four-day leg with Brown and Owens were Georgeanne Del Castillo, Barbara Gillaspie, Donna McGrady, Virginia Jane Murray and Susan L. White. Also on board was off-duty flight attendant Kathy Shen.
“Attendants are in the aisle checking seat belts and brace positions,” Brown recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘Have I covered everything?’ Then, I remembered we had four children on parents’ laps.
“I say, ‘Place your baby on the floor.’ As I’m saying this, I’m thinking, ‘In a classroom situation, that might sound fine. But in a real-life situation, this has got to be the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever said.’ It’s like, ‘Put your most prized possession on the floor, and let’s hope for the best.’ ”
Federal Aviation Administration procedure calls for infants to be swaddled in blankets and pillows, placed on the floor and held down by parents bent over them in brace position.
A chubby-cheeked 22-month-old named Evan — a baby Brown remembers interacting with during the flight — didn’t survive. That’s what led to her 27-year mission — so far, unsuccessful — to get the FAA to require safety seats for infants.
“We were waiting for the brace signal from the cockpit,” Brown says. “Over the PA, it came: ‘Brace!’ We started yelling, ‘Brace! Brace!’ ”
And the jet torpedoed down, toward Sioux Gateway Airport.
“Without ailerons, rudders, flaps, spoilers — any of the things allowing you to control pitch or altitude — we were coming in 100 miles an hour faster than we should,” says Owens. “The whole situation was approximately 40 minutes from when the engine exploded, to when we told passengers to brace, to impact.”
On touchdown, the DC-10 rolled, split into four pieces and erupted in fire.
“I couldn’t believe how hard we smashed into the earth,” says Brown. “I passed out. As my head went down, a flash fire rolled over me. My passenger across from me said, ‘You disappeared in the flames, and I thought you were a goner.’ ”
But she came to. “First, I’m thinking, ‘I must still be alive,’ ” she says.
“Next thought: ‘OK. We’re out of here.’ ”
But she had a problem.
“I couldn’t unfasten my harness. That same passenger helped me. We didn’t realize we were upside-down. I fell on him. It was pitch black.
“Behind me, someone says, ‘There’s an opening.’ I went to it. I held back debris and wires as my passengers exited. After people stopped coming, I thought of going back to see if there was anybody else. I looked back and saw gray-black smoke.
“You know how a tornado looks? It was like that — just roiling, coming along the ceiling, which was now the floor. We’re trained that you leave the airplane when the water’s too deep, the fire’s too hot or the smoke is too thick. So I left.”
Most of the survivors, including Brown and Owens, were seated behind first-class, ahead of the wings.
Owens remembers being blinded by sunlight.
“The section I was in was the largest part of the fuselage still intact,” he says. “The tail section had broken off. First-class had broken off. The cockpit was in a different section. We’re in the cornfield, upside-down. There’s a wall of debris.
“I hear people but can’t see anything. I undo my seat belt and fall onto debris. I look behind me. That’s where I see daylight. I begin the process of trying to get out.
“It was basically climbing an obstacle course, along the ceiling of the plane.
“The cabin begins to fill with smoke. I couldn’t see or breathe. I probably still had a good 70 or 80 feet to go.
“The smoke dissipates some, allowing me to proceed. I was one of the last ones out in that part of the plane.”
Survivors gathered on a hillside away from the burning plane.
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the crash was caused by failure to detect a fatigue crack in the fan disk. When it disintegrated, metal fragments damaged the plane’s hydraulic lines.
Brown at the time was a single mother of three and Owens a single father of one.
Today, Brown is remarried. Ever the den mother, she bustled about in preparations for Friday’s reunion, cooking, cleaning. A father of three now, Owens made arrangements to pick up out-of-towners at the airport. Several of them stayed at Brown’s home.
All but Dvorak, Gillaspie and Murray came to see the play.
“We’re close,” Brown says. “We’ve been getting together for years. I always look forward to seeing them. When you share a common event like that, you understand each other.
“Sometimes, you say, ‘Oh, I should have done this, or that.’
“Then, I say, ‘Hold it. Can you change anything?’
“I had a great crew. We just all did our best with what we had.
“You do what you can. God always has other plans.”