DES MOINES, Iowa — Fate meted misery and miracles in nearly equal measure when United Airlines Flight 232 crashed at the Sioux City airport on July 19, 1989.
The DC-10 was bound for Chicago when the tail engine exploded. Shrapnel from the blast shredded hydraulic lines. The pilots lost all flight controls. The odds of such a failure were one in a billion. The odds of survival were even worse. But an unprecedented show of skill and ingenuity by the pilots combined with a magnificently coordinated response by an army of rescue workers on the ground saved 184 of the 296 people aboard the flight.
In an email that Flight 232's captain, Al Haynes, sent to The Des Moines Register last week, he praised the flight crew, the rescue teams and the hospitals. But more than two decades after the crash, he remains saddened that the flight attendants never received the recognition he says they deserved.
"On my mind forever will be the thoughts of the 112 who did not survive," added the retired pilot, now 83.
Survivors, families of those lost and rescuers will gather in Sioux City next weekend for a three-day memorial and discussion of the crash some 25 years later. The names of those who died will be read aloud in a public ceremony for the first time since the crash.
Among topics to be discussed are how the crash shaped emergency responses, aviation and the lives of those connected. Gary Brown, Woodbury County emergency management director who worked the crash in 1989, said he originally didn't want to do anything. But soon it became clear people expected — and a few needed — something more to mark the occasion.
Flight 232 took off from Denver at 2:09 p.m., July 19, 1989. At 3:16 p.m., some 37,000 feet over Alta, Iowa, the tail engine exploded.
A microscopic flaw in an engine part, investigators later discovered, caused it to fail. Debris severed hydraulic lines. The fluid leaked out in about 2 seconds.
Haynes struggled to fly a plane without flight controls. The crippled plane began to turn steeply. It was in danger of turning upside down, which would have resulted in an immediate crash.
Haynes, First Officer William Records and Second Officer Dudley Dvorak eventually gained control of the aircraft. By adjusting the thrust to the two remaining engines — one on each wing — they could stabilize the plane.
Haynes would bring one engine to idle and push the other to full throttle. The result was a crude type of steering.
Dennis E. "Denny" Fitch sat in first class. He was an off-duty United DC-10 flight instructor on his way home to Chicago for a three-day weekend after teaching a course in Denver.
Haynes invited Fitch into the cockpit and assigned him to work the throttles. Haynes radioed the FAA and United Airlines for help.
The problem: There were no backup plans for a DC-10 with total hydraulic failure. This was the worst-case scenario.
"Dear God, I have 296 lives literally in my two hands," Fitch told documentary filmmaker Errol Morrisin 2001. "The first thing that strikes your mind is ... 'I'm going to die this afternoon.' The only question that remains is, 'How long is it going to take Iowa to hit me?'"
'You want to make it a runway, huh?'
Haynes considered putting down in Lincoln or Omaha or Des Moines. But control over the airplane was so poor that he decided Sioux City was closer and the best spot.
The plane took a looping, squiggly flight path over Iowa toward Sioux City.
Fitch became more adept at handling the throttles. He realized he could not slow the plane to less than 250 mph. A DC-10 typically approaches an airport at just over half that speed.
The cockpit voice recorder captured the pilots as they neared Sioux City Gateway Airport. The air traffic control cleared United 232 for any runway.
Haynes laughed and replied, "You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?"
But the situation was grim, and he knew it.
"Whatever you do," Haynes said on the recording, "keep us away from the city."
A DC-10 weighs about 330,000 pounds, and the lack of hydraulics meant no brakes, either. Haynes and Fitch tried to set the plane down on the runway as early as possible so the drag would slow the plane.
"The beautiful thing was that at the end of the runway was a field laced in corn," Fitch later said in the documentary. "I thought, 'Perfect.' We may leave the runway, but if we go into that cornfield, we can use all that plant matter to slow us down. We were gonna open eight doors, slides are gonna inflate, 296 souls are going to slide down, and we're going to the nearest saloon and I'm buying."
It was not to be that happy a landing.
Fitch saw the plane was sinking too fast. He tried to bring the nose up by pushing the engines to maximum power and then pulling them back at the final moment.
"But there just wasn't time," he told Morris.
Just before 4 p.m., the right wing of United 232 dipped down and scraped the runway. Fuel spilled. The plane exploded and broke into four pieces.
The main wreckage slid into a cornfield and caught fire.
If there was ever a fortuitous time for a plane crash, 4 p.m. on a Wednesday is about as good as one can get.
Two Sioux City hospitals — including a regional burn center — were in the midst of shift change. That meant more people were available to treat survivors.
The Iowa Air National Guard was on duty at the Sioux City airport. Nearly 300 airmen assisted with search, rescue and triage.
Another bit of fortune: The 45 minutes between the exploded engine and the crash allowed rescuers from surrounding communities to get to the airport along with local authorities.
Just two years before, Brown, the county emergency management director, participated in a regional large plane crash drill.
The training merged with the generosity and hustle of thousands of volunteers who rushed to the scene from every walk of life.
The final National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash credited the massive rescue effort with saving 41 people who would have otherwise died after the crash.
'I would gladly trade my life for theirs'
An anniversary for a disaster such as United 232 is a difficult day to mark.
Is it a memorial for the 112 dead? A celebration for the 184 who lived and those who fought to save them?
Fitch, who died in 2012 of brain cancer, said in the documentary: "I would gladly trade my life for theirs because I had the responsibility. We as a crew were able to save 184. But the rationale that these people lived that otherwise wouldn't have doesn't suffice to take away these feelings."
Perhaps Dr. David Greco, who was aboard a helicopter ambulance and worked the crash scene 25 years ago, sums it up best: "For the past 25 years, since witnessing the crash from a helicopter, I've been asking myself, 'Disaster or miracle?'"
In the end, it is both and more.
"If there's a legacy to 232 that's worth remembering 25 years from now or 125 years from now, it's this: Never let go of the desire to help other people," Brown said. "A lot of things have changed and will change in this country, but that's not gone. We still hold that close that no matter what, you've got to help each other."