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updated: 7/16/2014 11:05 AM

'I prepared myself to die.' Survivors recall Flight 232 crash

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  • Video: Jeff Miller, UA 232 Survivor

  • Rod Vetter of Green Oaks describes surviving the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa. A catastrophic failure of the plane's tail-mounted engine that led to the loss of all flight controls, resulting in the death of 112 people. But 184 miraculously survived.

       Rod Vetter of Green Oaks describes surviving the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa. A catastrophic failure of the plane's tail-mounted engine that led to the loss of all flight controls, resulting in the death of 112 people. But 184 miraculously survived.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Green Oaks resident Rod Vetter tells how he survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa. Vetter broke his neck in the crash, and his passport and wallet were burned.

       Green Oaks resident Rod Vetter tells how he survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa. Vetter broke his neck in the crash, and his passport and wallet were burned.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Sumit Roy of Naperville "tried to stay calm" as Flight 232 hurtled to the ground at Sioux Gateway Airport.

      Sumit Roy of Naperville "tried to stay calm" as Flight 232 hurtled to the ground at Sioux Gateway Airport.
    Courtesy of Sumit Roy

  • Denny Fitch, then of Bartlett, became a hero in 1989 when he helped land Flight 232. A United pilot and DC-10 instructor, Fitch was a passenger on the flight. He died of cancer in 2012.

      Denny Fitch, then of Bartlett, became a hero in 1989 when he helped land Flight 232. A United pilot and DC-10 instructor, Fitch was a passenger on the flight. He died of cancer in 2012.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • United flight attendant Rene LeBeau of Schaumburg died on the flight. Two plaques memorialize her near the Robert O. Atcher Municipal Center in Schaumburg.

      United flight attendant Rene LeBeau of Schaumburg died on the flight. Two plaques memorialize her near the Robert O. Atcher Municipal Center in Schaumburg.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • Two plaques and a bench mark a memorial to Flight 232 flight attendant Rene LeBeau near the Robert O. Atcher Municipal Center in Schaumburg. LeBeau, a Schaumburg resident, consoled a frightened young passenger before the plane crashed on July 19, 1989.

       Two plaques and a bench mark a memorial to Flight 232 flight attendant Rene LeBeau near the Robert O. Atcher Municipal Center in Schaumburg. LeBeau, a Schaumburg resident, consoled a frightened young passenger before the plane crashed on July 19, 1989.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 

Business traveler Sumit Roy felt lucky to snag an early United Airlines flight back to Chicago from Denver.

He settled into Seat 23J and joked with a Citibank colleague. "I was happy to be going home early," Roy, of Naperville, recounted.

This iconic photo of National Guardsman Dennis Nielsen carrying passenger Spencer Bailey away from the wreckage of Flight 232 was made into a statue. Bailey survived.
This iconic photo of National Guardsman Dennis Nielsen carrying passenger Spencer Bailey away from the wreckage of Flight 232 was made into a statue. Bailey survived. - Associated Press file photo
Nearly two hours later, he dangled from his seat belt in a cornfield amid the screams of terrified children and the acrid smell of a growing inferno.

Seconds before, the DC-10 had catapulted into a Sioux City, Iowa, runway at about 250 mph, burst into flames and broken apart. The section carrying Roy careened into a cornfield, upside down.

"At that point ... you think you're going to die," he recalled. "The best way to explain it is like being in a roller coaster in pitch darkness with fire and smoke around you."

Twenty-five years after the July 19, 1989, disaster, survivors of United Airlines Flight 232 are grieving, remembering and cherishing life.

A malfunctioning fan started a fatal chain reaction that destroyed the aircraft's hydraulic systems, which are essential to a safe landing. Emergency workers who witnessed the fireball thought all 296 people on board had died.

Miraculously, 184 lived, including Rod Vetter of Green Oaks, who still marvels at his very existence. Vetter broke his neck in the crash.

"Enjoy every day," he said. "You don't know if it will be your last day."

Flight attendant Susan Callender calls it her second chance at life.

"When I see something beautiful I say, 'Thank you, God' for letting me see this," she said. "But I think of all the families who lost loved ones and what a different meaning July 19 has for them."

Among those are Raymond LeBeau, whose redheaded "firecracker" of a daughter, Rene, died. Minutes before the crash, the 23-year-old flight attendant and choreographer comforted a boy traveling alone.

"There isn't a day that goes by we don't think of her," said LeBeau, a former Schaumburg trustee.

Just another flight

Rene LeBeau joined the DC-10 crew in Denver after a July 18 "flight from hell" with unruly passengers that she jested about with her dad by phone and with Callender aboard Flight 232.

"I wanted to make her feel welcome," Callender recalled. "She was so warm and bubbly; I loved her right away."

Over in seat 16G, Jeff Miller of Schaumburg drafted a eulogy for his grandfather, whose death cut short his Colorado vacation.

Rows 9 to 21 constituted the section with the highest survival rate. but Miller didn't know that when he negotiated a seat change -- he just wanted to sit alone.

"All I could think about was getting myself back home," said Miller, adding his large Italian family would never forgive him if he missed the wake.

In First Class, DC-10 instructor and United pilot Denny Fitch relaxed in Seat 5F. The then-Bartlett resident had his choice of planes but picked the DC-10.

At 37,000 feet, as flight attendants served drinks and parents soothed babies, a hairline fracture in a fan attached to the tail engine widened and grew.

At 3:16 p.m. an explosion rocked the airplane. Callender hit the ground, propelling soft drinks and milk containers.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, who put a bomb on our plane?" she recalled.

In the cockpit, Capt. Al Haynes, 57, and his flight crew were troubleshooting desperately. As the aircraft rolled to the right, Haynes reduced power to the left engine and the plane miraculously stabilized.

Authorities examine the fuselage of United Flight 232 at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, after the July 19, 1989, crash.
Authorities examine the fuselage of United Flight 232 at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, after the July 19, 1989, crash. - Associated Press file photo
The crew assessed the damage. Pieces of the fan ricocheting cost them the tail engine, but that could be overcome.

The fatal blow was dealt by the shrapnel that severed the hydraulic systems, which operate the flight controls. The rudder, ailerons, spoilers and elevators -- all the exterior machinery that channel air to steer and move the DC-10 up and down -- were useless.

At 3:20 p.m., the pilots radioed air traffic control for the closest emergency landing site and were directed to Sioux Gateway Airport, a small site not intended for DC-10s.

A PA announcement about the diversion to Sioux City calmed Miller, who mentally readjusted his schedule.

"I never thought we were going to crash," he said. "I thought, I'll miss the wake, but I'll make the funeral. I'll go down the slide and go right to the Hertz counter."

Senior flight attendant Jan Brown knew otherwise. After Haynes briefed her she returned to the cabin.

"I always look at people as I go down the aisle. I didn't look at anyone. I didn't want them to see the fear in my eyes and realize how bad it was," said Brown, of Schaumburg.

Fitch, who lived in St. Charles when he died of cancer in 2012, wasn't fooled by the flight attendants' outward calm. He offered to help, and Haynes gave him the throttles, the gas pedals for the airplane.

A burned area shows the contact point and crash path of United Flight 232 after it exploded on impact during an attempted emergency landing at the Sioux City, Iowa, 25 years ago

A burned area shows the contact point and crash path of United Flight 232 after it exploded on impact during an attempted emergency landing at the Sioux City, Iowa, 25 years ago - Associated Press file photo

As a DC-10 instructor, Fitch knew the aircraft inside and out.

"Get this thing down, we're in trouble," he said at 3:32 p.m., according to the flight data recorder.

'Good luck'

After Second Officer Dudley Dvorak checked on damage to the wing, he locked eyes with Callender, an old friend. "He was white as a ghost," she recalled. "I asked, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'Good luck,' and I said, 'Good luck,' too."

As the family behind him wept and prayed, Roy watched fuel being dumped with growing fear. "I was trying to stay calm," he said. "For some strange reason, I was not thinking I was going to die."

At 3:51 p.m., Flight 232 was 21 miles north of Sioux City. "Whatever you do, keep us away from the city," Haynes told the air traffic controller.

Despite her training, Callender never anticipated the agonizing conversation she had with a father who had placed his seat belt over the child on his lap.

"I had to explain (the seat belt) could crush the child; the FAA ruling is to wrap babies in blankets and place them on the floor," she recounted. In disbelief, the father repeated, "'On the floor?'"

Next, Callender consoled passenger Cindy Muncey who was sobbing, "'Are we going to die? I can't die ... I have three small children.'" Summoning all her strength, Callender prayed, "Dear God ... do not let me cry." Muncey perished in the crash.

At 3:54 p.m. Haynes told his officers to "get on the air and tell them we got about four minutes to go."

Up in the front of the cabin, LeBeau reassured a frightened young boy. "She was one of the last people to take her seat," Raymond LeBeau said.

At 3:59, the "Brace! Brace! Brace!" command came over the system.

Callender said the Lord's Prayer. "I imagined my pastor announcing my death in church," she recalled.

Cramped in his crouch position, Rod Vetter told the woman next to him, "I'm going to break my neck."

At 4 p.m., the DC-10's right wing smacked into Runway 22, a closed runway hastily cleared by ground crew.

The plane scraped across the concrete, rolled upside down, ignited and broke into four pieces.

"It was like falling out of a second story in a lounge chair," said Vetter, a former naval aviator.

The "lucky" center section skidded into a cornfield.

"There's an incredible amount of G-forces holding you in your seat," Roy said. "Eventually we came to a stop and we were hanging upside down in our seats.

"I was cut up, my colleague was cut up. Jagged edges of metal from the plane's body wires were hanging all over. There was a smell of burning plastic and rubber. My first thought was, 'OK, we survived the crash, and now I'll die of smoke inhalation.'"

Jeff Miller of Schaumburg describes his escape from United Flight 232. Miller started his business, Divine Signs, after the crash and said he's changed his outlook on life.

Jeff Miller of Schaumburg describes his escape from United Flight 232. Miller started his business, Divine Signs, after the crash and said he's changed his outlook on life. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Miller opened his eyes to "an inferno." He walked as if in a dream to the opening but paused to grab his Bible, which contained his eulogy notes.

"As soon as I was outside, it was like someone threw a bucket of water on me. That's when I felt the heat and saw the blood."

Inexplicably, Miller was untouched by the impact, and as he carried his Bible, passengers ran to him, thinking he was a priest. "They called, 'Father, Father!'" he said.

Vetter, formerly of Arlington Heights, remembers a smell of burning corn, which he can't stand to this day. He dropped to the floor, which was the ceiling of the aircraft, and made his way to a 2-foot diameter hole in the fuselage.

Two men were struggling to lift Sister Mary Viannea, 77, out. "I said, 'Each of you grab her arms, and I'll grab her knees,'" Vetter recalled.

When the nun was out of danger, Vetter and a flight attendant dodged exploding oxygen bottles to comb the DC-10 for others until the fire made conditions unbearable. "I didn't think ... I just did what I could," Vetter said.

Miller witnessed a parent's worst nightmare while standing with mother of three Lori Michaelson and one of her children. As Michaelson's husband, Mark, exited the plane with another child: "I heard (Lori) scream and saw (Mark's) face when they both realized the other didn't have the third child."

Jeff Miller of Schaumburg shows where he sat on United Airlines' doomed Flight 232. He ended up switching to the section of the plane that suffered the fewest casualties when it crashed.

Jeff Miller of Schaumburg shows where he sat on United Airlines' doomed Flight 232. He ended up switching to the section of the plane that suffered the fewest casualties when it crashed. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The horror turned to relief after passenger Jerry Schemmel, a sportscaster, rescued the Michaelsons' baby, Sabrina. "I remember that huge, quick circle of emotions," Miller said.

As the Iowa National Guard and firefighters took control of the scene, Roy and his colleague stumbled out of the cornfield to a triage area. It was then that he saw the casualties. "I thought, 'God ... how did we survive?'"

A few hours earlier, Callender was hoping she'd make it back to Schaumburg in time for a United coed softball game.

Now, she stood in a flaming, metal tunnel coaching dangling passengers to undo their seat belts.

"It was surreal," she said. Outside, helicopters landed and paper flew while bodies lay strewed along with golf clubs, luggage and ear phones.

"I prepared myself to die, and I survived," Callender said. "Life is so fragile ... I was given a second chance at life."

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