When I was four years old my family was assigned to a post in Burma. We drove to Iowa to see relatives before embarking on our trip. Our route was to fly from Omaha, Nebraska to Los Angeles, California, with a stop in Denver, Colorado. We were going to spend a few days in Los Angeles with relatives and then travel on to Manila and Rangoon. In the 1960’s, air travel was nothing like it is today. The planes were relatively small and jet engines were a new development.
We boarded the plane in Omaha for Los Angeles, and as our United Airlines DC-8 approached Denver, the pilot, Captain John Grosso, came over the loud speaker to say we were having some problems and our landing might be a little rough. I was sitting by the window with my father next to me. My mother was across the aisle and my brothers, nearby. My father took out his briefcase from under the seat, removed his glasses and put them in his pocket. I thought that was a little strange and I wondered what was going on.
It turned out we had lost all of our landing-gear fluid so the plane came down smack! – hard on the tarmac, no bouncing involved. The pilot immediately lost control of the plane and we skidded into a truck, killing the driver instantly. We then swerved haphazardly down the runway, finally careening off onto the grass where the engines burst into flames.
There were no overhead compartments, just open shelves. Hats, bags, and books sailed through the plane crashing down on people and seats. As soon as the plane stopped, my father scooped me up and headed for the exit. My immediate concern was for my favorite doll abandoned under the seat and being left behind. My mother was ahead of us and my brothers Tom (13) and Tim (15) were behind us.
We reached the emergency exit and stepped out onto the wing. My mother jumped to the tarmac below us, breaking her ankle in her high-heeled shoes. We could see her leaning on another passenger and limping away from the plane. My father and I stood on one side of the wing feeling the intense heat bursting from the engines on the other side. We turned to make sure my brothers were behind us and my father froze; they were not there. Several other people came out, but we didn’t budge as my father nervously craned his neck searching for Tom and Tim. Finally, they emerged and we immediately hit the ground and ran to the other side of the runway to join my mother.
My father went into severe shock. He was holding me so tightly that the shock passed to me and I began screaming in terror. He would not let me go even though my mother pleaded with him to put me down.
I remember looking over towards the buildings and seeing several fire trucks waiting patiently as the plane continued to burn. There was some construction impasse and the fire trucks could not enter the runway. Necessary ramps were missing. After what seemed to be hours, we were herded into a large hanger where we were sorted out. Each passenger had to tell the airline authorities who they were and what luggage they had. We were then sent off to a hotel in town. My parents told us that the airline would replace everything that was lost and I had to ask if that included my toothbrush. I was particularly sad to lose my babydoll, Meredith Ann Diane, because she really could never be replaced which I knew, even at four years old.
Seventeen people died in the crash and many more were severely burned. My father and brothers had minor burns and my mother had a broken ankle and we were all traumatized. One of the reasons airlines now have the long safety speech at the beginning of flights is because of that day in Denver in 1961. The crew was not properly trained and people did not know what to do in case of an emergency. Travel in those days was unpredictable, and could be fatal. In an instant I lost my favorite doll and learned a valuable lesson. Life could be terrifying but we were lucky people.
Weekly Writing Challenge: In An Instagram
You can read more about my story here: Expat Alien
What a terrifying yet life-affirming experience. My heart was in my mouth waiting for your brothers. Why is it we never feel more alive than when we are aware of the nearness of death?
So glad you’re here and sharing your thoughts and memories with us.
I still remember the anxiety in our household, as well. I was a senior in high school at the time and my Mother was beside herself. Your Father was very special to her and I remember phone calls and lots of media attention. We were so thankful that all of you weren’t badly hurt!
About halfway through, I thought, “Oh, this is neat, someone decided to write fiction after all …” Wow, was I wrong. What an experience; what a story. Thank you for sharing it.
What a scary incident for a little girl! And yet despite your terror at the time, what you took from this was: “Life could be terrifying but we were lucky people.” Wow. I’ll bet you are still strong and upbeat : ) Great story and well told! ~ Lily
Wow, this post is terrifying to read…I can only imagine what an impact that must of had on all of you on the plane. Beautifully recounted
Wow, what a story. Thank you for sharing and reminding us how little control we sometimes have over our lives.
What a crazy story. I was reading the post and on edge until the end. How frightening.
I was on edge, too, as I’m not fond of flying. Even today, things can go wrong, and we put our lives in the hands of strangers when we fly. Your story is simply terrifying, but thank goodness you all escaped. I will pay more attention to the safety procedures from now on.
Hi, I’m your new follower. I’m also a TCK (almost adult TCK) and I am very touched by reading this one. It somehow brings back the memories of my childhood as a TCK. I didn’t have the same plane accident. But it brings back the memories of the innocent child I was not knowing where I was going, leaving my favorite doll, and just watch how life changes in an instant. And I learned now that I have to listen to the long safety speech. Thanks
What a frightening story…. Thank you for sharing it…
dang goos story~
I have got to admit I was on edge. A very inspirational story.
It’s tough when you live to travel — and have to travel back to the US or Canada or your home country a great distance — after so terrifying an experience. I will only sit very close to the exit on/near the wing, not that it might help me necessarily, but whatever works!
Hi, I have a TCK 8 year old son who seems to be terrified with just the idea of moving. Like yourself, he is not so happy being back where he was born but he does not want to contemplate change (for better or worse).
Your story made me feel very shaken, and sad. I think in the life of “not knowing” and not being able to understand “letting go’, any added trauma could be so devastating. However the good part is – it did not break you but made you stronger!
well done….for turing the trauma into a blessing.
Let’s look at the BRIGHT side. Many people are dreaming to have to the opportunity to travel like us. Look at their faces when we explain the journey of life. They want our life! We have a great life, guys! Lots of memories and adventures! 🙂
A gripping and very moving account of your family’s pivotal moment.
wow very frightening…what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!
Wow! this is an amazing story well-told. So glad that you all survived, but I’m sure that’s an experience that affects you forever.
Yes, it is. You can follow the rest of the story in my book Expat Alien!