Constable: How a suburban couple survived world's worst plane disaster
Vacationers Caroline and Warren Hopkins of Northbrook discovered a minor problem as they boarded their Pan Am jet bound for the Canary Islands. Another couple were sitting in 5-A and 5-B, the Hopkins' first-class seats on the 747 jet. The flight attendant made that man and woman take their assigned seats farther back and helped save the Hopkins' lives.
The Northbrook couple survived the world's worst aviation disaster, which killed 583 people on March 27, 1977, when two jumbo jets collided on the runway of Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife. In his new book, "Collision on Tenerife: The How and Why of the World's Worst Aviation Disaster," author Jon Ziomek explains the clear thinking and quick action that saved the Northbrook couple.
As the Hopkins' plane was taxiing on the runway, the Dutch KLM Flight 4805 was mistakenly taking off on the same runway. When the Pan Am pilot finally glimpsed the oncoming jet, he tried to turn his plane into the grass. The KLM pilot tried to get his plane airborne. But it was too late. The KLM clipped the Pan Am plane, ripping the roof off the front of the Pan Am jet before destroying the rear and exploding in a ball of fire.
"To Warren Hopkins, it was as if someone had taken a long piece of adhesive tape and ripped it from the ceiling of the jet," Ziomek writes, noting that the Northbrook couple didn't even notice the headless body still strapped into a seat that fell into their section from the lounge above.
"Let's go," Hopkins, a World War II veteran, told his wife. Bleeding from a head wound caused by flying metal, the 53-year-old man jumped through the jagged hole where the emergency door had been and landed on his feet, severing two tendons and badly bruising his left foot. With exploding oxygen canisters and a growing inferno making the wreckage less stable, Caroline Hopkins took that 20-foot leap seconds later, landing on her right side and breaking bones in her shoulder. Her husband dragged her into the wet grass next to the runways, where they still were hit by pieces of metal zinging through the air.
"She had this great diary, which is why her name is on the book cover," says Ziomek, who was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times when he met the Hopkinses about a year after the crash. Caroline Hopkins thought there was a book in their survival and the ongoing trauma that the crash experience caused her.
Linda Hopkins, the couple's daughter, was a college freshman on spring break with her grandparents in Florida and listening to music on the radio "when they broke in with an emergency report on this plane crash," she remembers. The initial report said there were no survivors. "I just had a gut feeling my parents were in this. We knew they were dead."
All 248 people onboard the KLM plane were killed, but 61 of the 396 aboard the Pan Am jet would survive. When Caroline Hopkins did get a chance from the hospital to call her daughter, she said they were OK and immediately started asking her daughter about spring break in Florida.
Warren Hopkins had seen combat in Iwo Jima during World War II and once eluded Japanese soldiers by hiding in a foxhole covered by the wing of a crashed airplane. "If there was anybody who would get out (of the Tenerife crash), it was him. And he'd get my mom out if he did," Linda Hopkins says.
"The more I looked into it, the more I wanted more information," remembers Ziomek. "I just wanted to report it. I wanted to humanize it by writing about the people and who they were."
Interviewing survivors of a plane crash is different from interviewing survivors in a town ravaged by a tornado, earthquake or flood. "That's terrible, but everybody knows everybody else," says Ziomek. The crash survivors were strangers, although every year on the anniversary of the crash, Warren Hopkins would telephone a survivor from California he met while waiting for their flight.
Ziomek went to Washington, D.C., to wade through boxes of information on the doomed flights from the National Transportation Safety Board. The cockpit conversations went on for hundreds of pages. He interviewed more than 100 people.
"I'm the main reason it became a slow project," Ziomek admits. He thought the book dream was over when Caroline Hopkins died at age 62 in 1991. "When she died, I put everything away," he says.
Ziomek went back to school for his master's degree and became a member of the faculty and an assistant dean at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism from 1982 until he retired in 2007. His wife, Rosalie, found his files while cleaning out some storage in their Evanston home. "I had everything. I didn't throw away a single sheet of paper," remembers Ziomek, 71, who poured himself back into the book.
While much of the blame lands on the KLM pilot, the Pan Am pilot missed his turn, the air traffic controllers used confusing language, and a radio glitch garbled some of the instructions, plus there was the chaos after a terrorist bomb exploded at a Canary Island airport earlier in the day, and a sudden and thick fog contributed to the accident, Ziomek says.
The book also explains the safety changes made after the accident and is a reminder that people thrust into horrific situations sometimes freeze or wait for help. "The people who were a little more active and aware of their surroundings, they got out," Ziomek says.
Warren Hopkins is 95 and still lives in his Northbrook home. Surviving the worst aviation disaster in history was just something he did, Linda Hopkins says. "But it really affected everything in my mom's life for the rest of her life," she says, noting that her mom always was nervous and had a difficult time flying or even riding in a car.
The daughter, now 61, says she is glad the full story is finally available.
"I rewrote a lot. I re-reported a lot," Ziomek says. "I must have rewritten this seven or eight times, and every time when I got to the part in the cockpit, I'd get knots in my stomach because I knew what was coming."