Heroes risked lives to save crash victims
Jeremy Kerr shares a common bond with about two dozen Good Samaritans.
They were among the small group of men who, against all odds, pushed their way into the flaming fuselage of Northern Thunderbird Air Flight 204 to drag injured passengers to safety, after the small aircraft crashed Thursday in Richmond.
None of the men sought public attention in the days after the incident, but some have now come forward, largely out of the cathartic need to talk about what they experienced. The trauma of being thrown into the situation of becoming unexpected heroes has weighed heavily.
“I needed to talk about this because it stayed with me,” said Kerr, a medical-device salesman. “I needed to seek help because of the guilt I felt about us not being able to get the pilots out.”
Kerr had just left Richmond Hospital, where he was taking an order for medical devices, when the Thunderbird aircraft plunged on to Russ Baker Way. He watched in surreal fascination as the plane hit a lamp post, tilted up and plowed across the road.
Without a moment’s thought, he raced over to the scene. In hindsight, he now knows he did so out of extreme compassion.
“Waiting for help to arrive wasn’t an option,” he said. “If they were my loved ones on board, I would hope that someone would do the same for me.” Some of the events around what happened are blurry to Kerr. He says he doesn’t remember the faces and names of the other heroes who worked with him. “All I can remember is the victims.”
By the time Kerr had parked his Jeep on a median and raced over to the aircraft, passenger Troy Zanatta had managed to pry the back door open. Kerr and several others dragged him to safety without entering the air- craft. But then, the rescue of the rest of the victims became tricky. Seats had been torn loose, and the other heavily injured or concussed passengers couldn’t move. Fire at the front of the aircraft prevented rescue from the other end.
Kerr looked inside and could see a huge man with blond hair and a bloodied face stagger around.
“We were standing in jet fuel and it was slippery and we didn’t want to go in because we were afraid it would blow up,” Kerr said. “But the other guy I was with, we knew we had to step into the aircraft to get him, so we went inside.”
Kerr said he and the other man, of Indian descent, wrestled the passenger out toward the door. He was so heavy that Kerr had to virtually lift him over the debris to get him out. When Kerr turned around after passing the man off to waiting hands, he saw a blond woman — later identified as Carolyn Cross — face-down, struggling with all her might to get to the door.
“We went back in and dragged her out,” Kerr said
By the time Kerr went back into the wreckage again, the heat was nearly unbearable. He and another rescuer found another young man who he thought had a broken back and pulled him out.
Somewhere in all of the confusion, several other rescuers had gone in and dragged or carried out more victims. “People were calling out numbers, saying six, no, seven, no six people, there’s still more in,” he recalled. “I lost count.” By then the flames had become too intense and Kerr anguished about not being able to reach pilot Luc Fortin and copilot Matt Robic.“i now know we would have been dead if we went back in again.”
Within minutes Richmond Fire Department arrived and after dousing the plane, two firefighters went in and dragged the last of the passengers to safety.