Ris­ing above tragedy

Vic­tims’ fam­i­lies work to change laws, help oth­ers in dis­as­ters

The Detroit News - - FRONT PAGE - By Francis X. Donnelly

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

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