Flight 232 survivor from Schaumburg: After plane crash, 'some things aren't important anymore'
For the past 30 years, Jeff Miller has been sharing a perspective on life's priorities that only seems to come naturally when "that fine line between being here and not being here" has been made agonizingly clear.
The Schaumburg man was among the 184 survivors of United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, while traveling from Denver to Chicago. The crash killed 111 fellow passengers and crew member Rene LeBeau of Schaumburg.
Miller, 58, was one of only 13 passengers to unbuckle himself from his upside-down seat completely uninjured. During those few minutes between realizing the malfunctioning plane was going to crash and walking away from its burning wreckage, his outlook on life changed forever.
"When you grab your ankles at 30,000 feet, some things aren't important anymore," Miller says. "It was like being pushed off a cliff with a blindfold on."
Three decades later, Miller's recollections of that day continue to play a practical role for United Airlines. He periodically meets with the Chicago-based airlines' emergency response workers to discuss what he learned from his experience and how United handled the tragedy. The latest was Wednesday, just ahead of today's 30th anniversary of the crash.
The relationship began in an unexpected way after Miller started his Schaumburg business Divine Signs and Graphics in 2003.
"Coincidentally, I sold (United) signage for their emergency response team," Miller said.
It was near the end of the transaction that Miller said to his contact at the airline, "Oh, by the way ..."
Miller said the passing of three decades hasn't burned out his willingness to share.
"I do not get tired of it," he said. "Sometimes I'm amazed people want to hear it."
During his previous meeting with United officials, the conversation and his responses were recorded so others not in the room could view them.
"I believe that the response to incidents always has to evolve," he said of the airline's continued interest.
The problems aboard the United flight began about an hour after takeoff from Denver, when the DC-10 aircraft's tail engine explosively failed and debris severed hydraulic lines, leaving pilots without crucial flight controls.
Among the insights that came to Miller as pilots struggled to control the aircraft and attempted an emergency landing in Sioux City was that there's not enough time in life to hold grudges; there's only enough time to always be the best version of oneself.
Miller sees sharing his insights as a way of giving back and recognizing a specific purpose in his survival. While he wishes people could achieve a broader perspective without a death-defying experience, it often seems at odds with human nature.
"We're all wired the same," he said. "Who would ask me to speak if I hadn't been in an airplane crash? No one."
Another lesson Miller tries to impart is that as fortunate as he was to survive, the direction of the rest of his life was still up to him.
He could have decided he was never going on another airplane for the rest of his life, rather than taking one home the same day as the crash.
He could have decided he was never going to forgive United Airlines, instead of choosing to help its emergency response planners to this day.
He could have told his wife she would never understand what he went through that day because she wasn't there.
But being positive and open to life were key to his experiences the past three decades.
"You become what you think about," Miller said.
After the first anniversary, when he returned with others to the site of the crash, the anniversary that drew the most attention was the 25th in 2014, Miller said. That anniversary was greeted by the publication of Laurence Gonzales' book, "Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival."
Miller finds the book rewarding for the interviews with survivors who'd never previously talked about their experiences, as well as Gonzales' research into the tiny mechanical flaw that led to the crash.
But mostly the book relieved Miller by confirming the information he'd been sharing for a quarter of a century was accurate.
For Miller, the most significant anniversary was the 28th, just two years ago. He was 28 years old at the time of the crash.
"This is the marker that I would have been dead longer than alive," he thought to himself at the time.
Miller also understands that while the anniversary is a cause of reflection and celebration for survivors, it remains a tragic reminder for the family members of those killed that day.
"I believe God has a plan for everyone's life," Miller said. "There are no throwaway people. But I don't have more purpose than someone who died."