How United Flight 232 passengers were saved by ordinary people

In his book 'Flight 232,' writer Laurence Gonzales tells the story of how regular citizens made a huge difference when a plane en route from Denver to Chicago ran into trouble.

'Flight 232' is by Laurence Gonzales.

United Flight 232, en route from Denver to Chicago, does not drop out of the sky when pilots lose hydraulic steering at 37,000 feet. The laws of physics keep the DC-10 in the air. But an engine is gone, the brakes are out, the flaps and slats don't work, and the plane can only make right turns. It's a summer day in 1989, and this plane with 296 souls on board is going to crash.

There should be no way to fly this plane, no place to land, no community ready to respond in less time than it takes to watch two sitcoms. It will take a miracle, and it does.

Flight 232 manages to make it to an airport in Sioux City and land. You may have seen the stunning video: A giant plane passes a water tower, touches the ground, and seems to cartwheel across the tarmac amid fireballs and clouds of black smoke.

The survivors begin to escape the burning plane, breathing in the acrid stench of jet fuel and the loamy aroma of a Iowa corn field. The airport's awaiting rescuers descend on the scene, having narrowly missed disaster themselves as the plane neared. Investigators are on their way, along with reporters and ministers and ordinary citizens on a mission to help.

Now, a quarter century later, these remarkable stories have found a remarkable storyteller. Laurence Gonzales, a veteran journalist and aviation specialist, masterfully chronicles one of the most remarkable events in aviation history in his new book "Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival."

Amid the devastation, Gonzales looks for answers about what went wrong. But he finds much more than people and machines to blame. He focuses on the survivors and rescuers too – who they were, what they experienced, and what they've become.

This is not an easy read. Many people died, and not every survivor or first responder could recover. But Gonzales finds courage, resilience, and selflessness among people coping with some of the greatest tests anyone could ever face.

In an interview, Gonzales talks about the keys to resilience, the rights things to do in a crisis, and the lessons of Flight 232 for airplane safety.

Q: Did you worry that this would be a grim and unreadable story?

A: "When I first thought of writing about this crash, I worried it would be relentlessly depressing and nobody will want to read about it. But then I started interviewing people and found this is a story of human strength, generosity, and heroism, the qualities we so admire in people.

It's a real irresistible human drama that brings out the best in everyone. There were sad things at the heart of the story, but you can't really have drama without sad things."

Q: What surprised you as you wrote this story?

A: "Every single day, it surprised me in ways I could not have imagined.

I was surprised at how strong people were, how generous people were, how resilient they were in the aftermath, how people went and got right back on planes.

It's not that they weren't changed by it. But they weren't broken by it. It's a story like the book 'Unbroken,' about people who are able to rise above."

Q: But some people – on the plane and among the those who responded on the ground – were not able to recover their lives, correct?

A: "A few did not. There were people who just didn't make it to regular life. They suffered from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional problems, and depression, and never really got on track.

But there were very few. I would not have predicted this."

Q: From all that you've learned, what are the keys to resilience?

A: "It's not that you walk away and bounce back. It's often a long ride.

But people who have a passion in life and get busy with that passion always do better than those who don't have a goal or a passion for that goal.
Sometimes people have to create a passion out of a catastrophe. The airplane's captain, Al Haynes, was a man with a passion for flying, and he still has a passion for flying. But his overarching passion became to tell his story."

Q: What did you learn about how to make decisions in a crisis?

A: "The best thing we can learn to do is to control emotion, to keep calm. Emotion and reason work like a see-saw. The higher the emotion, the more difficult it is to make a rational decision."

Q: What can this accident tell us about the airplane safety?

A: "Flying was really safe in 1989, and it's safer today still, as everything from crew training to navigation has improved. But one area that is falling into question is the pilots themselves.

They're trained to push buttons. The planes are so automated that you can get in a cockpit and not do any flying for quite a while, and that can have bad consequences.

Pilots back in those days were still hands-on-flying pilots. I worry about the pilots these days and how they should spend more time doing hands-on flying."

Q: What can we learn from the Sioux City region's amazingly capable response to the crash?

A: "Siouxland is at the confluence of three rivers. They've come up through history dealing with adversity like flooding and all kinds of other things. In the midst of that atmosphere, a man named Gary Brown organized an emergency disaster drill.

People made fun of him – we're out here in a cornfield! – but he persisted and put together a disaster plan. They had a drill in 1987 that simulated the crash of a jumbo jet, and they staged it right on the runway. They had prepared for this in an uncanny way.

When the engine blew up, the pilots radioed in and the people of Siouxland had about a half hour to get ready. This all put them into a position that we don't normally get to see. They were lining the runway. There are passengers who would otherwise have died, but a paramedic was right there. They saved lives who otherwise would have been lost."

Q: What about the aftermath in Sioux City?

A: "They also were very well-organized beyond the immediate response in the days following in terms of gathering bodies, setting up a morgue, and identifying the victims.

They set the bar for disaster response, and other people looked at Sioux City and said they want to do it that way. It has been an influence on how we respond to disasters like tornadoes and floods. Over the 25 years since, fire departments and ambulance companies have used Sioux City as a training ground and people from there have gone all over the world saying, here's what we did and how we did it."

Q: What's the main lesson from the response?

A: "People rise to the occasion. Not every single person, but most people. It gives you new faith in humanity."

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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