Anniversary of plane crash brings survivors, responders together
By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
Most people have one guardian angel.
Jerry Schemmel, 54, of Littleton, Colo., has 112.
The angels, who watch over Schemmel, are the individuals who lost their lives when United Airlines Flight 232 crashed at 4:01 p.m., July, 19, 1989 at the Sioux City airport on an abandoned runway. Of the 296 souls on board, 112 died and 184 survived.
Schemmel, a native of Madison, S.D., and former Inwood, Iowa, resident, told a standing-room crowd, gathered 25 years later to the time and day at the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation, Sioux City, not a day goes by that he does not think of the lives lost, keeping a list in his day planner.
“I have ridden a bicycle across the country twice for a charity fundraiser and both times, I had the list of the 112 safely tucked in my bike travel pouch,” he said, and for emphasis, pulled the list out and held it up.
“The event dramatically changed my faith life, because I had no faith,” he insisted. “I found the Lord.”
Sioux City hosted three days of ceremonies, events and open houses so survivors, family, friends and the public could hear accounts of the flight crew and the response of rescue personnel and volunteers from across Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
The DC-10 jumbo jet was traveling from Denver to Chicago when a crack occurred in a disk in the plane’s No. 2 tail-mounted engine. A metal defect caused the engine to separate, knocking out the aircraft’s hydraulic systems over Iowa. There was suddenly no way to steer the aircraft.
It’s something that never should have happened, Captain Al Haynes of Seattle, Wash., told an audience July 18 at the Orpheum Theatre, Sioux City.
“It’s not the way I would have first liked to have visited Sioux City,” quipped the retired pilot, who has given 1,700 talks on Flight 232, donating every one of his honorariums.
Haynes hoped he could meet the nun who called his wife and told her he was OK. Sister Marlys Becker, OSF, of Dubuque was in the audience.
“They handed me the lid of a cardboard box with a lot of numbers on it and Captain Haynes’ wife was on it,” she related. “On all of my calls, I would start off with: ‘This is a good news call from the hospital,’ because if you just say, ‘I’m calling from the hospital,’ people imagine the worst. Then, I told Mrs. Haynes her husband was alive and I could hear her scream in the background, ‘Girls! Dad’s OK!’”
Although others may have sought out closure, Haynes, 82, has not.
“Closure means you're going to forget it. You're not going to forget it, but you do have to accept it,” he said. “It happened. ‘Why me?’ doesn't work. ‘What if?’ doesn't work. It happened. You have to accept it and the best way to accept it is to talk about it."
Flight attendant Jan Brown received second- and third-degree burns when her nylons melted to her legs as the plane crashed and burst into flames.
"I'm not getting sucked out of the airplane," she told the crowd of her thinking at that moment. "I'm with it to the end."
Brown, a member of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Schaumberg, Ill., confessed her first prayer was, “God, could I please be somewhere else?”
“But the answer came to be calm and it was a very decisive answer,” she continued, once the chuckling subsided. “I didn’t think there was any alternative, but to secure the cabin and keep the passengers calm.”
Another panelist, Sister Margaret Wick, OSF, of Dubuque, Iowa, served as president of Briar Cliff College, Sioux City, from 1987-1999. The college, on summer break, opened its doors to survivors and family members.
“Captain Haynes mentioned ‘thank you’ seems such a small word to offer for all those who helped, but it’s not,” she said. “When you look back over the five days, such a sense of community was built among all those who helped with perfect strangers, I think it’s a lesson in that the potential for community building was always there.”
The weekend concluded with an ecumenical prayer service July 20 at the Anderson Dance Pavilion on the Missouri River.
Father Marvin Boes, a retired priest of the Diocese of Sioux City and former chaplain for the 185th Iowa Air National Guard in Sioux City, proclaimed the Scripture readings, Psalm 22 and Matthew 25:31-46.
The Rev. Greg Clapper, also a former guard chaplain, expanded on the readings in his message, “God and the Human Heart: Love and Freedom, Lament and Hope.” Both clerics were among the first responders.
“God has a plan for us, but it is not a roadmap so he is in control of every turn,” the Methodist minister, said. “This plan includes the gift of freedom, which leads to a most important Christian virtue, humility.”
Following the service, those in attendance were invited to take one of the 296 red, white and blue carnations to the Spirit of Siouxland Memorial in Chris Larsen Park, which features a seven-foot tall bronze statue depicting Lt. Col. Dennis Nielson of the guard carrying 3-year-old Spencer Bailey, a survivor of Flight 232. The sculpture is based on a photograph taken by former Sioux City Journal photographer Gary Anderson and crafted by sculptor Dale Lamphere of Sturgis, S.D.
Lamphere, who was the sculptor for many statues at Trinity Heights Queen of Peace in Sioux City, felt the entire weekend of activities was meaningful.
“I thought the reading of the names of the deceased was particularly powerful,” he said. “Meeting the survivors and families has made a profound impact on my life.”
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