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Sharing reflections
‘Be grateful for all God has given you’

By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
(Email Joanne)

Bishop Walker Nickless of Sioux City was sitting in his living room at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Lakewood, Colo., watching television on Wednesday, July 19, 1989.

“I was vicar for the clergy and Wednesday was my day off,” he recalled. “The news flash came on about a plane crash in Sioux City.”

Bishop Nickless, then a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver, admitted he had never heard of Sioux City.

“But I remained glued to the TV set as they broadcast the stories,” he said. “I vividly remember the chain link fence in front of the crash with the flames and smoke going up.”

The bishop, like many others, shared remembrances as Sioux City hosted three days of ceremonies, events and open houses. 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 to the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 at the Sioux City Airport.

The July 18-20 weekend drew almost all of the surviving Flight 232 crew and a good number of survivors and the families of the victims. Of the 296 souls on board, 112 died and 184 survived the crash.

Reconnections

Dave McWilliams of Sioux City was acting airport manager in 1989 and shared a special connection with flight attendant Jan Brown.

“She would call me every year and ask me to take flowers out to the crash site,” said McWilliams, who was a member of the former St. Casimir Parish, Sioux City.

Joan Wernick, 69, of Niwot, Colo., was a 232 passenger with her husband Peter and son, William. She has an unusual connection to the Diocese of Sioux City – her niece is friends with the sister of Bishop Nickless.

“Three things I learned from my mother that I have taken away from the crash: one, the grace of the moment, two, you’re going to die sometime and three, be grateful for all God has given you,” said Wernick, who attends Catholic churches in Longmont and Boulder, Colo.

What resonated for Wernick over the three days of events was connecting with David Milford, who was a 7-year-old passenger with his father, Jerry; his brother, Tom, 9, and aunt Kari Persinger. All survived the crash.

“I looked at him and his wife and his baby daughter during the church service and I thought to myself, ‘That beautiful child is here today because David survived the crash,’” Wernick said. “That really hit home.”

Milford, of Lawrenceville, N.J., was suspended in the air after the crash before being helped to safety. The young man, raised a Catholic, was accompanied on his trip to Siouxland by his wife, Katie, and their 7-month-old daughter, Ali.

“I agree with Joan’s sentiments,” he said. “It’s all been an incredible experience.”

Finding answers

In 1989, Lauren Marsh-Bush was 6 years old, a Flight 232 survivor who lost her mother, Suzanne Marsh and grandmother Gwen Gibson in the crash.

“I came to Sioux City because I wanted to know more,” the 31-year-old said. “I didn’t get a lot of answers to the questions I’ve had over the years and this visit has helped.”

Raised a Catholic, Marsh Bush of North Kingstown, R.I. was able to meet the nurses and social worker who touched her life and cared for her during her hospital stay.

“I cannot believe how nice everyone has been,” she said. “I feel like I have others now in my life who can help me with the healing.”

Within 90 minutes of the crash, rescuers from three states evaluated, treated and transported to hospitals nearly 200 injured people. The National Transportation Safety Board has estimated more than three dozen individuals would have died had it not been for the quick, skilled and overwhelming rescue response.

Dr. Michael Wolpert of Dakota Dunes, S.D., was in the emergency room of Mercy Medical Center – Sioux City (then Marian Health Center) and attended all the 232 events.

“At times, doctors put on a professional armor,” mused the parishioner of Blessed Teresa Calcutta Church. “Something like this (the anniversary activities) allow us to show we have chinks in our armor. There is no doubt in my mind that divine intervention played a major role.”

Giving thanks

Jacquelynn Goettsch, who attends St. Joseph Church, Sioux City, was a member of the nursing management team at the Catholic hospital, operated by the Sisters of Mercy.

“I was assigned to the emergency room,” she said. “The gurneys were lined up on both sides of the hallways, with two people on each one. I think at one time I counted, and there were seven to eight patients unloading at the same time.”

Goettsch was also the supervisor of OB\GYN departments.

“Since we were unable to receive trauma patients in our department, we used three of our rooms to house the flight attendants who flew in from Chicago,” she said. “They spent their time helping the victims and seeing to all of their needs. They would be up around 6 a.m., work all day, and retire to the OB department around 10 p.m. The OB night nurses made sure that a rose and a mint were on their pillows when they came to bed. After several weeks, they returned to Chicago. Within several days, we received the most beautiful floral arrangement. It was at least five feet wide.”

Five years ago, Bishop Nickless was reminded of the 232 crash at his nephew’s Little League ballgame in Denver.

“I noticed the former mayor of Denver, Frederico Pena, and since I knew he was a friend of my brother, I approached him and introduced myself as from Sioux City,” he said. “He immediately began extolling his praises on Sioux City for its response to the crash and said he would never forget how helpful and wonderful the people were in response to the crash.”

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