First responders didn't think people could survive 232 crash
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KTIV) - When United Airlines Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, 20-years ago, many thought no one could survive... even the emergency crews who watched the airliner crash.
But, it was the skill of those same emergency responders that helped save countless lives.
"We were working on an air show, we were going to have an air show, so we were working on the emergency plan for that," said Gary Brown, Woodbury Co. Disaster Services Director. But, what disaster services director Gary Brown couldn't plan for was what would happen next. "This was considered an "Alert 3", which is the most serious," which indicates that either the aircraft is down, or is going to crash," Brown said. "We dealt with these regularly. And, most of the time, the aircraft would land fine, and we'd all go home."
United Airlines flight 232 would be different. Crippled when the fan disc in the tail engine shredded all of its hydraulic lines, the DC-10 was limping in for a landing in Sioux City. "We didn't know the aircraft was in that critical of condition," said Jim Hathaway, 185th FW Fire Chief (Ret.). "We just knew they were bringing a DC-10 in for an emergency landing."
A scenario emergency crews had actually planned for. "We had a drill 2 years before," Hathaway said. "We wrote up a scenario of a large aircraft come in here for a landing."
But, this was the real thing! "They said there was 292 people on board, and I said, 'Wow!' That's bigger than what normally comes in and out of here. Then it started to register with me," Brown said.
Things looked good. "When we watched him come in, he was "wings level, his gear was down," Brown said. "We all thought, "piece of cake." "The wing touched down," Hathaway said. "And, it started to cartwheel up the runway. A ball of fire, a cloud of smoke." "You could see the aircraft actually stand up on its nose, and, he was coming apart," Brown said. "You honestly didn't think that anyone could survive."
But, somehow, some did. "We were driving down the runway, and seen a group of seats come sliding through the smoke," hathaway said. "And, a person in a middle seat unbuckled their seat belt and got up and started walking away." "I'll never forget, there was two ladies, and two kids," Brown said. "The first thought that went through my head was 'there was a field trip or something out here. And, nobody told them that an airplane was gonna crash. They were showing the kids the airport, or something.' Cause nobody could have survived the crash. They had to have been injured by being on the ground. A couple of seconds later it registers that these are people coming from seats out of the airplane. They're coming from the fuselage."
"You're totally focused on your job," Brown said. "Taking care of patients." Jim Hathaway's job was to put out the fire now consuming the main cabin of the plane. "That was hard, especially when you had people asking for help, and they were still in their seats," Hathaway said. "Our job was the fire, and the aircraft. I had to order my people to leave them 'cause our job was the fire."
After two hours, the fire was out. Crews had triaged and treated 184 patients. Memories that don't fade for Jim Hathaway, even 20-years later. "There isn't hardly a day that goes by that I don't think about it."
For Hathaway, talking about the tragedy has helped. "I still go to counselors. We meet once a week, on a Wednesday. So, we sit there for an hour and talk. And, it helps."
Hathaway retired from the 185th in 1997. "When I retired from the Air National Guard, I felt I still had something to give to the profession." For four months a year, for the next three years, he managed an airport in Antarctica. He's back in Sioux City, now.
Gary Brown has literally built on the lessons learned from the crash. "I wanted something good to come out of that tragedy," Brown said.
Brown, and many others, campaigned for the money to build the Security Institute at Western Iowa Tech. The home to the county's 9-1-1 call center, and a unique system allowing dozens of different agencies to talk to eachother. "We knew we couldn't talk to eachother, and we knew why we couldn't talk to eachother," said Brown. "That was magnified on July 19th, 1989."
Now, when disaster strikes, the institute serves as a central operations center for local, state, and federal agencies. "Its been a winding road to get to where we are today," said Brown. "But, I don't think we'd have ever gotten to this point had it not been for the recognition our community received for the way we responded to that incident."
A legacy that lives on, long after the tragedy that transformed a community, and countless lives.
In the 20-years since the crash, countless agencies have examined the emergency response. Even the National Transportation Safety Board says had it not been for the 80 pieces of rescue equipment-- that came from 40 different communities-- many more lives would have been lost.