Flight 232: 25 Years Later

Skyline of Sioux City, Iowa. (Sioux City Journal)

I took my first plane trip in 1984, flying from Waterloo, Iowa (ALO) to Dallas. All I recall is that we flew on Ozark Airlines (it was acquired by TWA in 1986). It’s weird that I remember a lot of things as a kid, but a plane ride was something I vaguely remember. To this day, it was the last time I flew, not by choice, but there was never a need to fly anywhere. My family were car drivers. We drove everywhere.

My mom was a frequent flyer, as her job at John Deere took her to places like Cleveland, New York, Sweden, and most recently to Russia.

There is a sense of irony as I write this, on the heels of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 reportedly being shot down and crashing in Ukraine on Thursday. I say irony because Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of United Airlines flight 232 crashing at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa. One hundred twelve passengers perished in that crash. Miraculously, 184 survived.

It was tragedy…and a miracle, all at once.

The first time I remember hearing and watching a news report about a plane crash was Delta flight 191 that went down when it hit a microburst as it was landing at the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) in August 2, 1985. The eerie part was that DFW was our destination from Waterloo, with a short stop in Springfield, Illinois a year earlier.

When CNN broke in with a bulletin that Delta 191 went down, I was in the den with the television on. I was mesmerized and spellbound watching the coverage. I never thought planes would go down. As a 9-year old, I thought planes could never crash. Delta 191 changed that perception for me that afternoon.

The Des Moines Register headline from July 20, 1989 of United Flight 232 crashing in Sioux City. (The Des Moines Register archives)

Thursday, July 19, 1989 was a typical hot July day. My sister and I had a babysitter during the summer. Around 3:30 pm, our babysitter left. Mom wasn’t going to be home until 4:30. No big deal. My sister was somewhere in the house, I was in the den (again) with the television on. About 3:45, KCRG-TV interrupted programming to report that an airplane was in distress and flying around Sioux City. United 232 was en route from Denver to Chicago. As the DC-10 plane flew over the Nebraska/Iowa border at 37,000 feet, its tail-mounted engine blew out, causing a hydraulic failure and plane lost all flight controls.

I didn’t quite understand what all of the plane lingo meant (what little kid didn’t?), but it was clear: 232 was in trouble.

Big trouble.

I rushed into the bathroom, where we had a radio at, and flipped between WMT, WHO, and KWLO radio trying to find more information. Internet wouldn’t come until a decade later. I bolted back into the den, and changed the channel to KWWL-TV. They were able to get a feed from sister station KTIV-TV in Sioux City and anchor Dave Nixon. Several weeks earlier, Sioux Gateway Airport (SUX) had a crash drill. Everyone went through what to do should a plane crash or an emergency landing was to be attempted.

As 232 was flying around northwest Iowa, airport officials and emergency crews preparing for the emergency landing. This time…it was real, not a drill.  Flight captain Al Haynes, co-pilot Dudley Dvorak, along with DC-10 instructor Dennis Fitch, who was a passenger, did all they could to keep the plane upright as it was heading toward the airport.

About 3:55, KTIV switched over from the studio to the airport.

I was going to see a plane make an emergency landing…or crash…

…in front of my eyes.

The camera panned to the right as the plane was descending quickly towards the runway. The time was 4:00pm. The plane’s right wing tilted as the belly hit the runway. The plane flipped and exploded in a ball of fire.

I stood there. It was all I could do. The image of 232 cartwheeling into a ball of fire and debris flying all over Runway 22 became a permanent fixture in Iowans forever.

But, that wasn’t the only image all of us would remember. .One by one, survivors were coming out of the field, staggered, bloodied, and dazed. Responders rushed to the wreckage to walk, carry, and pull survivors away from the area. When everyone was accounted for, 111 died in the crash. One died a month later from injuries sustained in the crash.

Dennis Nielsen is shown carrying 3-year-old Spencer Bailey in this famous July 19, 1989, photograph taken following the crash of Flight 232 in Sioux City. Nielsen was an Iowa Air National Guard lieutenant colonel at the time this photo was taken by then-Journal photographer Gary Anderson. (Sioux City Journal archives)

The miracle, or the shock that reverberated across the nation:  184 people survived. There was no way that many passengers survived a crash of such magnitude.

The crash of 232 changed the lives of the passengers and the crew. It also changed the lives of the residents in Siouxland and Iowans. If not for Haynes, Dvorak, and Fitch, the fatalities could have been worse. If not for the quick action of the responders, the survivors would not continue to show their appreciation for the care and support. A sizable number of them are returning to Sioux City today to reunite with the crew and the responders, as they mark this anniversary…this 25th anniversary that remains of the most unforgettable event in state and aviation history.

Time after time, Iowans have shown resolve and banded together in times of crisis and tragedy.  There is something about Flight 232 that was different. It wasn’t the volunteers who were there to help. It was an entire region that converged together in Sioux City that muggy afternoon of July 19, 1989.

It was a day I saw a plane crash in front of eyes for the first time.

And it is the one that is etched in my memory for eternity.

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