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25 Years After Horrific Crash, Memories Surface And Crusades Continue

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Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com

DENVER (CBS4) - A quarter-century after an airplane’s crash into an Iowa cornfield killed 111 passengers, one crew member continues to push for children’s safety aboard flights.

United Airlines flight 232 left Denver’s Stapleton International Airport on July 19, 1989, bound for Chicago when engine trouble forced pilots to crash-land the DC-10 at Sioux City’s airport. Of 296 aboard, 185 survived.

Smoke billows from the fuselage. (credit: CBS)

Smoke billows from the fuselage. (credit: CBS)

One passenger and two crew members spoke to CBS4 recently about their experiences and memories and how one passenger’s death triggered a campaign for safety.

Here are their stories.

***

For Jerry Schemmel and his boss, Jay Ramsdell, bad luck struck early in the day. The pair was scheduled to leave Denver’s Stapleton Airport on a 7 a.m. flight, but they were bumped and placed on standby for four flights.

They were the last to board flight 232.

Flight attendant Susan Callender (whose name was Susan White at the time) escorted them down the jetway. Schemmel recalls boarding:

“I remember her distinctly telling us, ‘Hey, hope you don’t plan on getting any sleep today because we have a lot of kids, a lot of babies on this flight.’ She said it tongue in cheek, but it was true.”

Schemmel took his seat in row 23, behind the second bulkhead on a plane of 38 rows and close to an emergency exit. Ramsdell sat about seven rows back, Schemmel believes. As with any crash, location meant everything.

Jerry Schemmel (credit: CBS)

Jerry Schemmel (credit: CBS)

A little more than an hour into the flight, portions of the tail-mounted engine failed, fractured and then punctured portions of the hydraulic systems, severely limiting the pilots’ control of the plane and disabling the landing gear.

Schemmel heard an explosion from the rear of the plane and his thoughts narrowed to bombs and terrorism: “For a while I thought it was doomsday.”

Then the plane started to level again. “After a couple minutes, I thought, ‘Maybe we’re going to be OK.’ “

But the situation was more severe. The pilot, Alfred C. Haynes, informed the crew they’d proceed with a crash-landing — and it’d be rough, he warned.

Callender said the pilots told the crew they didn’t have any hydraulics and couldn’t break or steer. There would probably be a fire, too.

A flight attendant working first class emerged panicked from the cockpit, Callender, then 25, said.

“They can’t control the airplane,” she remembers her coworker saying.

***

After Haynes announced via the plane’s PA system he needed to perform a crash-landing, the crew prepared the cabin for the inevitable. Schemmel remembers the pilot calling it a “serious predicament.”

“I took inventory,” Schemmel said. “I thought about the fact I might not make it. I looked at triumphs. I looked at regrets. At the end I was pretty much at peace. If I die, I’m probably ready as I’m going to be.”

After another flight attendant, Jan Brown, finished prepping passengers, she wondered: Had she covered everything? Then she remembered there were four “lap children” — the term for kids not in their own seats — aboard.

She and her crew handed pillows and blankets to the parents to help buffer their kids upon impact — the procedure at the time. They were placed on the floor to be braced for impact.

“When I was saying this, it just hit me that, in a classroom situation, this sounded sane. But for me to be telling passengers in the emergency that we were in, it was the most ludicrous thing I had ever said in my life. I might as well have said, ‘Just hold them and hope for the best.’ It was a horrendous moment.”

What followed was much worse …

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