Rising above tragedy
Victims’ families work to change laws, help others in disasters
ROMULUS — It was the night Middle Belt Road caught fire, the fuel-fed flames spreading like water, igniting everything in their path — hillside, trees, cars. A Northwest Airlines flight had crashed just after departing Detroit Metro Airport in 1987, killing 156 people.
For 20 years, the lives of the victims’ families have been defined by that single horrific moment.
But they didn’t allow the anger or pity to swallow them up.
Instead they used those raw emotions to fight for federal laws improving the rights of people who would experience the same nightmare.
As they gather on the once-charred, now tree-lined, hillside tonight to mark the 20th anniversary of the Aug. 16 crash, their sadness is tinged with a smattering of pride.
“Something positive came out of something negative,” said Tony Zanger, 46, a Monroe maintenance worker whose brother died in the crash. “We did something good.”
Others also have risen from the ashes of the Detroit crash, one of the worst U.S. air disasters.
Earlier this year, a Carleton, Mich., woman was married in a wedding dress that was to be worn by an aunt who died in the crash shortly before her wedding.
And a little girl who was the lone survivor of the 1987 accident has reassembled a life that, like the plane, was left in pieces.
Cecelia Cichan, now 24, lost her parents and brother in the crash.
She suffered third-degree burns over a third of her body. Her right index finger was amputated. Her leg was broken and skull fractured.
Today she is freshly married and graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in psychology. Raised by an uncle and aunt in Birmingham, Ala., she’s ready to forge a life of her own.
Cichan, the so-called “miracle girl” whose survival cheered a nation, avoids the media but described her life on a Web site dealing with the crash.
“I am doing great,” she wrote. “I never go a day without thinking about the people on Flight 255.” Everything was ablaze
On a sultry summer night in Detroit, Flight 255 was scheduled to fly to an even hotter place, Phoenix.
The Sunday night trip was a popular one. As usual, all the seats were full, mostly with vacationers in casual garb.
The pilot, running behind schedule, failed to run through a preflight checklist, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
First on the list: Extend the wing flaps, which allow the plane to gain altitude. He didn’t. Taking off from Detroit Metro, the plane rose only 48 feet. Its wings rolled left and right, clipping a light pole that sheared its left wingtip.
Traveling 212 mph, the modified DC9 struck several other light poles and the roof of an Avis Rental Car building before smacking into Middle Belt a half mile from the runway.
Security guard Gordon Atkins arrived at the scene to find everything ablaze.
A half dozen people stumbled about, several on fire, he said at the time. He tried to lead one to safety but, surrounded by explosions and encroaching flames, he had to leave the man behind.
“The only choice I had was to run, or stay there and burn,” he said. Monument marks site
The once-seared lives of crash victims’ families have mostly healed.
When they fly, they no longer stop by the cockpit to remind the pilot to run through his preflight checklist or sit near the wings to ensure the flaps are set.
The number of people attending the yearly hillside vigil marking the crash anniversary has dwindled to a dozen.
While the families have moved on with their lives, a memorial that sits atop the hill at I-94 and Middle Belt represents their legacy.
For seven years, they battled to have the black granite monument built. The city of Romulus worried about impeding traffic in the well-traveled area. Northwest wanted the whole thing forgotten.
“A lot of people said ‘get on with your life,’ but this is part of my life,” said Kay Gleason, 65, a
WHAT REALLY MATTERS Lives of those who died, not thrill of big story, is what’s important. Solemn vigil Memorial service for victims of crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255
Location: Intersection of I-94 and Middlebelt Road
Time: Tonight at 8:46 p.m., the time of the crash 20 years ago. The public is invited to attend
For more information: visit flight255memorial.com
Shelby Township homemaker whose husband died in the crash. “This is something that you hold in your heart.”
The memorial was finally erected in 1994, but the families didn’t stop there.
Unhappy with their chronic inability to get information from Northwest about the crash, they fought to make all airlines more responsive to victims’ families.
Air crash support groups identify themselves by flight numbers and Northwest 255 was known as a tough bunch. Others came to them for counsel.
The 100-member Michigan group led nine other groups in forming a national organization, National Air Disaster Alliance. Based in Washington, it lobbies for tougher air safety rules and the rights of victims’ families.
In 1996, the alliance convinced Congress to pass the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which requires airlines to help the relatives of crash victims in several ways: quickly notify them of the accident, offer crisis counseling and help retrieve dental and X-ray records for identification.
The federal law prevents lawyers from soliciting victims’ families within 30 days of the disaster and establishes the National Transportation Safety Board as the lead agency in addressing the needs of relatives. Relatives join groups
After the crash of Flight 255, several victims’ relatives immersed themselves in the local or national support groups.
They visited other accident sites to help the afflicted, comforted them over the phone and attended training for crisis intervention. They wrote letters to lawmakers, quizzed experts and testified at government hearings.
No one threw themselves into the tasks harder than Joan Potante.
The former hairdresser, 68, of Fulton, N.Y., became a self-styled expert on the troubled Detroit flight that killed her brother. (She pored through investigative reports, photos, newspaper clippings, training manuals.
When a group of international aircraft designers held its annual meeting in Poland, they invited her to discuss the victims’ point of view.
When JetBlue Airways needed someone to train their workers in family care, it tapped Potante.
Between those appearances, she wrote letters or traveled around the country to speak on behalf of victims’ families.
All the work helps fill the void created by her brother’s death, she said. “There’s no closure,” she said. “You just learn how to cope differently in life.” You can reach Francis X. Donnelly at (313) 223-4186 or fdon[email protected]news.com.
John T. Greilick / The Detroit News Joan Potante, who became a victims’ advocate, points to the names of her brother William Best, his wife Kathryn and their children Billy, Hillary and Katelyn, who died.
John T. Greilick / The Detroit News “Something positive came out of something negative,” says Tony Zanger, visiting the Romulus memorial. His brother died in the crash.
The Detroit News Some 156 people died when Flight 255 hit Middle Belt 20 years ago today.
The Detroit News A little girl was the lone survivor of the 1987 crash. Cecelia Cichan, now 24, lost her parents and brother in the crash. “I never go a day without thinking about the people on Flight 255,” she says.
Tony Zanger, left, June Marsh and Joan Potante gather at the memorial to remember their loved ones. John T. Greilick The Detroit News
The Detroit News