WORLD

DOOMSDAY FLIGHT

THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 232 KILLED 110 AND RAISED SERIOUS SAFETY QUESTIONS ABOUT DC-10 AIRCRAFT

HOLGER JENSEN July 31 1989
WORLD

DOOMSDAY FLIGHT

THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 232 KILLED 110 AND RAISED SERIOUS SAFETY QUESTIONS ABOUT DC-10 AIRCRAFT

HOLGER JENSEN July 31 1989

DOOMSDAY FLIGHT

WORLD

THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 232 KILLED 110 AND RAISED SERIOUS SAFETY QUESTIONS ABOUT DC-10 AIRCRAFT

It was not the first time the 15-year-old United Airlines DC-10 had had rear engine trouble. The engine overheated and quit at 16,000 feet on Sept. 30, 1988. One week later, it failed again just after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Then, on July 19, the jumbo jet was late leaving Philadelphia for Denver because, in the words of one passenger, “everything sort of shut off.” And on the return flight from Denver via Chicago, its rear engine blew up—showering debris on Iowa farms. Wrestling with the controls for 40

minutes, Capt. AÍ Haynes, a 33-year veteran pilot, circled Sioux City before attempting an emergency landing. He coolly warned the 285 passengers and the rest of the 11-member crew that it would be “a little rougher than expected,” but assured them that the plane could still fly on its two remaining engines. No one appeared to panic. What they did not know was that Haynes had advised Gateway Airport of a complete hydraulic failure— meaning that he could not operate the rudder or wing flaps. As the plane wobbled toward an unused runway, a wing tip caught the tarmac, breaking the plane apart and sending a large chunk of the fuselage cartwheeling into a cornfield in a shower of flames.

Horrified onlookers were stunned to see survivors walk out of the carnage: two flight attendants, a small boy still wearing the United Airlines wings he had been given on

the plane, a dazed family of five. Charlie Martz, who crawled through a window smeared with blood, said that it came from “people with feet and arms missing.” Cliff Marshall of Columbus, Ohio, helped a grandmother, a small girl and other passengers escape through a hole in the fuselage before he himself fled the burning plane. In all, at least 120 people—most of them

sitting in rows 9 to 20 near the wings— emerged relatively unscathed. Fifty-nine, including pilot Haynes and the rest of the cockpit crew, were admitted to hospital. But 110— mostly seated in the forward first-class compartment and the tail section—were either killed on impact, burned to death or died later in hospital. Remains were scattered over a 1,600-m radius, some still strapped, three-perrow, in airline seats. Among the dead was Canadian Peter Foley, the 36-year-old sales manager of Toronto’s multilingual CFMT television station. He had been attending a computer seminar in Colorado Springs—and wanted to fly home early for his daughter’s eighth birthday.

The crash of Flight 232 raised disturbing questions about the safety of DC-1 Os. The Federal Aviation Administration would not confirm the cause until it had finished studying two flight recorders and voice tapes recovered from the aircraft. But the National Transportation Safety Board acknowledged that the rear engine was found missing its turbine fan, which, according to some experts, could have sheared off and severed hydraulic lines. Broken turbine blades farther back in the engine had been responsible for the two engine failures in 1988.

In 1983, McDonnell Douglas decided to stop making DC-lOs—which were first built in 1969—but they are still used by 51 airlines. DC-10s have been involved in five major accidents. The entire U.S. fleet of DC-lOs was grounded for inspection in 1979 after an American Airlines jet crashed in Chicago, killing 275, and there have been numerous cases of engine failure in which no fatalities occurred.

On the fatal flight from Denver—bound for Chicago en route to Philadelphia—Haynes radioed air traffic controllers at 3:16 p.m. to

report that he had lost his No. 2 (rear) engine. One minute later, the pilot reported that the hydraulic system was not functioning. At 3:20 p.m., he declared an emergency and minutes later began the approach to the Gateway Airport while firefighters and medical teams readied for the crash landing, which finally occurred at 4:04 p.m.

Inside the plane, John Transue of Milwaukee saw flames shooting through the cabin as it flipped, then “the whole nose section just disappeared,” he said. Kay Vemer of Cincinatti said that she was not even aware she was upside down “until I saw people in front of me loosen their seat belts and drop. I smelled smoke and all I could think of was getting out of there.” Several passengers praised the pilot. “He was a hero,” said Transue. “He really saved our butts.” Federal aviation officials also marvelled that Haynes had managed to bring the crippled jet within a few hundred metres of the airport before it swerved out of control. And Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who visited the hospitalized pilot, said Haynes himself was “really concerned about landing right in the heart of Sioux City.”

David Greco, the doctor in charge of the emergency department at the Marian Health Centre in Sioux City, watched from a hovering helicopter as the plane skidded t;/> some 800 m from where it § first hit. “When I saw it burst t; into flames and cartwheel,” o he said, “my ray of hope for ^ survivors turned into no hope. We were amazed that anybody could be alive.” Rescue crews worked through the night. The dead were put in a temporary morgue at the airport. The survivors were assembled in a makeshift camp beside the runway before being taken to area hospitals. At one of them, survivor Adrienne Badis of Durham, N.C.— suffering from bums, lacerations and a puncture wound—told Maclean’s that, because of a late booking, he and his six-year-old son, Eric, were sitting in a different section of the plane from his wife, Ellen, and 2V2-year-old Aaron. After the crash, surrounded by the dead and wounded and heaps of debris, Badis said to Eric, “We just lost Mummy and your brother.” It was not until three hours later—when a nurse spotted a toddler wearing the same “Don’t worry, be happy” T-shirt as the older boy—that the family was reunited. But despite such happy endings, neither the survivors— nor the residents of normally sleepy Sioux City—would ever forget the horrific end of United Airlines Flight 232.

HILARY MACKENZIE

HOLGER JENSEN with HILARY MACKENZIE in Sioux City

World Notes

ARRESTS AND EXECUTIONS

A high-ranking Chinese official said that police had captured dissident student Wang Dan, a chief instigator of the prodemocracy movement that soldiers brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square on June 4. Meanwhile, in Paris, five escaped Chinese dissidents—under the banner of the newly formed Chinese Democratic Front— claimed that about 120,000 people had been arrested in China in the past seven weeks. They added that more than 100 had been secretly executed in Beijing, although the government has only acknowledged 33 executions.

PROBING A SCANDAL

In Athens, the new Greek parliament voted to investigate former Socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou, 70, and four of his most senior ministers for alleged involvement in a $240-million bank embezzlement scandal. Conservatives and Communists formed an ad hoc coalition government earlier this month to clean up after Papandreou’s scandalplagued eight-year administration.

AMERICANS IN SPACE

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing on July 20, President George Bush declared that it was time for the United States to commit itself to a sustained program of space exploration. At the Washington ceremony, Bush called for a permanent U.S. moon base early in the next century and an eventual expedition to Mars. But he made no specific offers of funding.

MANDELA'S BIRTHDAY

For the first time in 26 years, jailed black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela attended a family reunion. At his bungalow on the grounds of Victor Verstèr prison outside Cape Town, four generations of the family gathered to mark Mandela’s 71st birthday. On July 5, Mandela—who was sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment for sabotage and plotting to overthrow South Africa’s white-minority government—had a private meeting with President Pieter Botha that fuelled speculation about an imminent release.

PAYMENT FOR A TRAGEDY

The U.S. government offered about $36million compensation to the families of 290 passengers and crew killed in July, 1988, when the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. A Pentagon investigation concluded last year that a series of errors led crew members to mistake the Iranian Airbus A-300 for a hostile jet fighter.