Charles Martz Jr. has always considered himself lucky. A year ago this week he was sitting up and looking out the window of a United Airlines DC-10—an ex-Navy pilot, he believes the bent-over “crash position” is useless—when the plane hit the ground at Sioux City, Iowa, and started to cartwheel down an airport runway. “It seemed like we skidded forever,” Martz remembers. “Then came the sound of metal tearing and screeching. You couldn’t hear people sounds. It was like being in the middle of a drum.” Moments later, the 59-year-old cable-TV executive from Castle Pines, Colo., unscathed but for a dirty shirt, dropped from the smoking, overturned plane into a scene out of Dante. “It was like I was all alone, except for these bodies strewn all over this muddy cornfield. And I thought, ‘Where is everybody? I can’t be the sole survivor.’ ”
A total of 112 people died when United Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago was disabled by an engine explosion on July 19, 1989, and crashed and burned while attempting an emergency landing at Sioux City. But 183 other passengers shared Martz’s extraordinary luck. This week 140 of the survivors, their families and the plane’s crew (all but one lived) will observe the anniversary of their deliverance from death at a reunion in Sioux City. They will thank the city for its efficient rescue operation and view models of a Flight 232 memorial to be built at the airport. But the real value of the gathering will be to provide them with one more opportunity to exchange memories and nightmares and to console one another in their survivors’ guilt. Martz is doubly lucky, because he has been able to put the crash behind him. He doesn’t feel the need to attend. But most are still struggling with lives utterly changed by the crash. “It’s an oversimplification of the process,” says a therapist who has worked with the survivors, “but trauma victims need to talk about what happened to them over and over and over again until they’re bored with it.”
A Child’s Horror
Six-year-old Lindsi Werner of Pueblo, Colo., recounted her experience to her psychologist in a book she called What a Trip. Everything happens in a blur in the book. One moment the little girl is enjoying the flight with her grandmother, and in the next “the speakers came on and said, ‘Bend and touch your feet.’ I knew we were going to crash. I started to pray, ‘Keep us safe.’ ” Next, “we were upside down and people were screaming and crying.” Then, outside in the cornfield, Lindsi “saw a lady that made me feel I was dreaming. Blood was dripping down her face.”
According to her mother, Jerri Brown, who is divorced from Lindsi’s father, the little girl wouldn’t let her out of her sight for months following the crash—she even panicked when Jerri went into the bathroom. She was terrified by her first fire drill in kindergarten. Lindsi’s psychologist predicted that her walled-off feelings would show themselves as physical illness, and over the past six months, she has been sick constantly with colds and the flu, even scarlet fever. But thanks to lots of support and fishing trips with a doting grandfather, the child seems to be mending. Still, Lindsi says she will never forget “all those bloody people.”
The Wound of Memory
Ernie Ornelas’s hands bear graphic witness to the crash. Covered with long jagged scars, they were cut and burned during the frantic minutes when Ornelas, 46, struggled to release a 12-year-old boy hanging from a seat belt, then crawled with him to safety across the searing metal ribs of the plane. Ornelas, a Postal Service employee in Denver, didn’t realize at the time that his body was also burned. Nor does he dwell on it now. What still hurts terribly is the thought of four coworkers, all friends, traveling on business, who perished on Flight 232. “I constantly think of them because I see their work, their names,” he says. “If I could have just one wish, they would be back. I can’t understand why so many people around me didn’t make it and I did.”
Ornelas still sees a trauma therapist and expects never to fly again. He has trouble sleeping and relives the disaster in his dreams. “When I see an airplane crash on television,” he says, “I can see the smoke and smell it, even though I’m not there.” He feels most at peace, he says, when he’s running, especially in the rain. “You’re all alone—it’s a comforting feeling.
A Crisis of Faith
Garry Priest has experienced his own dark night of the soul. An employee of a Denver-based restaurant chain, Priest stayed out of work for almost a month after the crash, trying to come to terms with his feelings. “I was 23,” he says, “and I walked on that plane invincible. It took that plane crash for me to be sensitized to what can happen to me and others.” He was angered afterward when people about to fly would rub his head for good luck; he couldn’t understand when they’d tell him how special he was and that the Lord must have a plan for him. “I kept thinking, ‘Why am I more special than that 8-year-old boy I saw dead on the runway?’ I thought if that’s the Lord, if that’s the way he works, then I don’t want any part of it.”
Visits with a Catholic priest helped restore his faith, and his boss talked him out of quitting his job. Priest has also drawn comfort from a support group of some 30 survivors that meets monthly. Their first exercise was to screen videotapes of the crash, and they were surprised to find that all their recollections differed. “We were like a deck of cards thrown up in the air,” says Priest.
“I’ve had a problem with my own family,” he continues, “as other people have in the group. I remember my family saying, ‘Garry, it’s been six months after the crash. Aren’t you going to get any better?’ ” Priest says he was getting better, but they couldn’t see it. “You see, my family lost this person they knew in Sioux City,” he explains. “I can never be that person again. But I can care now. I can make a difference.”
One Family’s Fears
Harold Fong, 36, and his wife, Martha Bartz, 38, both in real estate in Colorado Springs, worked desperately to save their 2-year-old son, Scott, who didn’t have his own seat and had been traveling on his mother’s lap. As instructed by the crew, Fong somehow held his screaming little boy against the shifting floor as the plane cartwheeled. Since the crash, all three must fight to control their constant apprehension of disaster. Bartz says she used to be “carefree, pretty trusting of the world. But now I have to be in control of the situation, or I’m really uncomfortable.” Fong says he looks each way half a dozen times before crossing the street. Scott has developed a fear of heights and of “things that go fast.” The little boy often plays in his room with his toy planes, crashing them into the floor and announcing, “They’re on fire.”
Still terrified by her son’s brush with death, Bartz has gone on TV calling for mandatory child restraints on airplanes. “Recently we flew to Phoenix,” she says, “and all these mothers were bouncing their babies in their laps…”Her voice trails off and she shakes her head. “You want to say to these people, ‘You’re crazy’…although we did it too…before the crash.”
—William Plummer, Vickie Bane in Denver