Lorie is one of my first students to have graduated from my Leaving a Legacy series. She is a member of the group I call the Feral Cats. She read this story at my first luncheon that I had way back in January of 2009. Everyone in the room had chills when she finished reading this story. I asked Lorie recently if she would mind sending it to me so I could share this all with you. Feel free to leave your comment for Lorie after you read this amazing story…
UAL Flt. 811
The recent news of what the NY Governor called a “Miracle on the Hudson” brought vividly to my mind my own miracle. Upon hearing that everyone aboard survived this horrifying accident, a flood of emotions came over me, because I knew exactly what those passengers were feeling. They were most certainly terrified and then suddenly found themselves to be among the luckiest people in the world. After hearing my story, you will say that I am also among that special group of lucky people.
On February 23, 1989, almost 20 years ago, I boarded a United 747 jetliner at the Los Angeles Airport on a flight to Sydney, Australia, with my two sons, Stuart, who was 19 at the time and Marc, age 9. My husband, Marcel, was on a business trip to Sydney and had gone ahead several days earlier. We took this opportunity to enjoy a vacation down under.
Our flight (UAL Flt. 811) had two scheduled stops on the way to Sydney, first in Honolulu, and then Auckland, NZ. We would be on the same airplane for 17 hours, including stops, before reaching Sydney. My husband was employed by United and we were traveling on a standby basis. If there are empty seats in either first class or business class we are permitted to upgrade to those seats, which I had hoped to do because of the length of the flight. As I waited at the check-in counter, the ticket agent was advising a tall young man traveling alone that due to weight restrictions on his flight, a non-stop flight to Sydney unavailable to us because it was fully booked, he was being offered either a refund or a seat on Flt. 811. He accepted a seat in business class on Flt. 811, which precluded me and my family from having seats in that section because there were only two seats remaining and we chose to sit together. We were assigned the first center row in economy directly behind the business class section.
We departed Los Angeles around 8:15 p.m. and with the time difference in Hawaii, we arrived there around midnight. Upon landing, the pilot announced that we could deplane and re-board in about 45 minutes. We stood up to stretch our legs as the janitorial crew briskly tided up and deodorized the aircraft. Since some of the passengers’ destination was Honolulu, I thought there might be seats for us now in business or first class. We still had a lot of hours of traveling ahead and so I asked Stuart if he thought it would be a good idea for me to go to the gate and see about upgrading our seats. His response was, “It’s up to you, Mom.” I’m thankful he did not encourage me to do it. It probably saved our lives.
Flt. 811 was ready for takeoff around 1:30 a.m. It was now February 24th. Stuart had traveled from Boulder, CO, where he was a student at the University of Colorado and he was exhausted from such a long day, so he settled back and fell asleep within minutes of takeoff. Marc appeared rested from a four hour nap on the flight from LA and was listening to his “Stand by Me” tape on his Walkman. I’m never relaxed enough to sleep on an airplane, so I was looking forward to watching the scheduled movie, “Gorillas in the Mist.”
The takeoff seemed unusually rough and turbulent to me. We found out later that we had traveled through thunderstorms and lightening. As a result, the captain did not turn off the seat belt sign, but soon the flight attendants began to come through the aisles passing out menus and pulling beverage carts. It’s always reassuring to me when the cabin attendants begin to go about their normal duties.
About 20 minutes into the flight out of Honolulu and only minutes after a flight attendant handed us a menu, we heard a deafening sound and a violent thud that rocked the airplane. Stuart bolted from his sleep in shock as our eyes anxiously met and we both cried out, “What was that?” An enormous explosion immediately followed. According to the official report, following the explosion, “1½ seconds later the forward cargo-door blew out abruptly. The pressure differential caved in the floor above the door, causing five rows of seats, and an individual in row 9F, to be ejected from the cabin, resulting in nine fatalities (a flight-attendant in the Business-Class cabin was also severely injured), and leaving a gaping hole in the aircraft.”
The noise of the wind in the aircraft was deafening. It was like a roaring tornado within the cabin. The overhead compartments flew open. Everything that was not pinned down flew through the air and was sucked out of the aircraft.
We could not communicate without screaming. I repeated aloud several times, “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.” This apparently is a common experience of those in shock. It’s too traumatic to believe it’s real. It felt like the plane was being ripped apart. I was expecting the aircraft to fall to pieces any minute and crash into the ocean.
The oxygen masks did not drop and we later learned that the decompression damage had destroyed the on-board oxygen-generating equipment and the pilot began an emergency descent to get the aircraft rapidly down to breathable air, while performing a 180-degree left turn to return to Honolulu;
My nine year old pointed to the window directly to our right where we saw that the engines were on fire. I looked at Stuart and saw his ghostly white complexion and look of disbelief. He told me later than my expression displayed the same stark horror. I knew at this point I had to remain calm and in control for the sake of my children.
As a result of the decompression in the cabin, we were all experiencing intense pressure in our inner ear. Marc seemed to be suffering more than the rest of us. There were small drops of blood dripping from his ear and I knew he was in a great deal of pain. Some passengers were screaming and others were climbing over the seats towards the back of the cabin trying to move away from the massive gap on the side of the plane. A young man about Stuart’s age seated in the aisle seat across from him reached over to shake his hand and shouted, “Looks like this is it, buddy!” He was alone and seemed pretty shaken.
Although I was certain we would all die, I didn’t give up hope. The heartbreak of believing my two sons were going to die was overwhelming. I called out to them, “I love you. Don’t give up hope!” They responded with, “I love you.” I began to pray aloud. “Please God, don’t let us die. Please don’t let my sons die. They’re too young to die.” I’m sure I repeated those words a hundred times believing at any second we would crash into the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.
One of the flight attendants was screaming instructions over a megaphone to put on our life vests and using hand signals on how to open the emergency door. Even with the megaphone it was almost impossible to understand her. Everyone started searching for their vests and we found we only had two. One was missing from under our seats. I tried to help my sons put on the two we had and suddenly couldn’t remember how to do it even though we had just viewed the instruction video right after takeoff. We at last succeeded in our efforts and someone found an extra one for me. My 19 year old later said in a family counseling session with a psychologist that at that moment he thought to himself, “My mother means more to me than anyone else on this earth, but if we crash in the ocean, I will have to save my brother.”
After what seemed like an eternity (but in reality 14 minutes) we could see through the gaping hole on this moonless night the lights of Honolulu approaching. What a glorious sight! As the plane neared the airport, our fears turned to hope and we could hear polite sporadic cheering in the aircraft. We then heard the captain’s welcoming words, “Two minutes to landing. Two minutes to landing.” The flight attendants screamed, “Keep your heads down. Keep your heads down.”
Although the aircraft was leaning heavily to the left because the right engines had been disabled, the pilot was able to bring it down smoothly and it came to a sudden stop. The cabin was covered with debris and luggage, but we hurriedly followed the other passengers to the nearest exit and without hesitation jumped down the chute to safety. Fire engines were everywhere with lights and foam being sprayed onto the aircraft. The firemen were covered from head to toe in silver fire-resistant suits, looking like spacemen in the dark night. The experience seemed dream like, as they hastily moved us away from the aircraft, fearing it could explode any second. The time was 2:33 a.m.
Among the nine passengers we lost on that flight was the young man who transferred from the non-stop flight, a native New Zealander returning home from college. The injured passengers were placed on ambulances, including the flight attendant in our section who had been crushed by the beverage cart and suffered two broken arms and several ribs. Others of us were fortunate enough to come away with the only physical evidence of our experience being some damage to our ear drums or nylon burns on our arms and legs from sliding down the chute.
We are forever indebted to our captain, David Cronin, who miraculously brought this jumbo jet weighing 700K lbs. with only two engines and a 40 foot hole in its side back to Honolulu. A quote in the newspaper coverage the next day from another seasoned 747 pilot said an aircraft with these problems cannot fly. Capt. Cronin, like Capt. Sullenberger who brought his aircraft down in the Hudson River, was an experienced glider pilot with many years of flying. Capt. Cronin’s composed conduct and expertise in this emergency situation saved 328 lives. When he was asked, “What did you do when the place ripped open? How did you cope?” Captain Cronin replied, “I prayed, then went to work.”
In the picture are a few of the ferals with me..from left to right is Pat, me, Lorie and Joan