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.
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