Episode 68: United Airlines Flight 232 Part 1 & 2

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When the crew of United Airlines Flight 232 boarded their aircraft on July 19, 1989, they had no idea they were just a few hours away from the greatest challenge they would ever face. In the skies above Iowa, a terrifying noise and a shuddering aircraft would start one of aviation history's most memorable tales, and the outcome changed lives and flight safety for all of us.

In the first of this two-part episode, Stephanie shares what happened before, during, and after the disaster as well as why planes are safer because of what we learned. In part two of our episode, Shelly tells the events of the crash from the perspectives of the survivors, including the cabin crew and the first responders on the ground. These stories highlight just how remarkable the landing was and how the crash forever changed the local community in Sioux City, IA.

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After United Airlines Flight 232 crash landed at the airport in Sioux City, IA, the real and difficult work began to treat any survivors. In Part Two of Episode 68, we share stories of the people who lived to tell about their experiences, from first responders and air traffic controllers to the many passengers and families onboard whose lives were forever impacted the crash. 

United Airlines Flight 232 Crash Lands at Sioux City

As this is a two-part episode, let’s very quickly recap what we covered in Part One. Forty-five minutes before it was scheduled to land at Chicago O’Hare, Flight 232 suffered a catastrophic failure of its tail-mounted, number two engine (which was one of three engines). Because many flight systems flowed through the tail, when the engine exploded, it caused a loss of hydraulics. Captain Al Haynes and First Officer Bill Records had to fly the plane by hand and were aided in this heroic endeavor by training check airman Dennis Fitch, who happened to be onboard that day. The three men worked together to manually control the plane in a painstaking, exhausting, and never-before-done series of maneuvers. Ultimately, the plane crash landed at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Of the 296 passengers and crew on board, 112 died during the accident, while 184 people survived. 

In this Part Two we are going to hear what this crash was like for the surviving passengers and cabin crew members and how they carried forth into their lives following the trauma of the crash. For this episode, I consulted sources from all over the internet, including The Lincoln Star, CBS Evening News, The AP, NPR, Iowa Public Radio, and The New York Post. These sources are all linked in show notes on the page for this episode on our website at www.taketotheskypodcast.com – just search for episode 68. 

As we mentioned, the fact that anyone survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 has since been called many things, but the most consistent of these is “miraculous.” Having the benefit of decades to analyze the crash, experts credit the existence of survivors to several forces: the skills of the pilots, the quick response by first responders, the immediate reaction and coordinated efforts of the flight attendants, and even the passengers themselves, many of which acted heroically that day. 

First Responders, Controllers Prepare for the Worst as United 232 Approaches Runway

Even before Flight 232 slammed and tumbled across the runway at Sioux City Airport, air traffic controllers (ATC) had been coordinating with rescue personnel on the ground, starting once the plane was about 85 miles away from the airport. 

As ATC tracked the plane on its radar, controllers communicated with crews on the ground. At least 30 rescue vehicles trailed the plane – because they knew at any moment, it could go down. 

With about 35 minutes advanced notice that the plane was approaching Sioux City, over 30 fire rescue units were already on scene, considered by many in the community to be a testimonial to volunteerism. The other 30 rescue units from nearby small towns arrived shortly right after, as those vehicles had been following the aircraft from the east.

Meanwhile, in the control tower, Kevin Bachman, air traffic controller, was the one guiding United Air Lines Flight 232 on the last 36 minutes of its descent. As the plane got closer and closer to the runway, the other controllers in the tower made a circle, joined hands, and began to pray. Bachman said that he wept after watching the DC-10 cartwheel down a runway and burst into flames. He thought the people he had just helped only moments before had all perished.  He said, "I had to turn away because I didn't think anybody would make it. Then I went downstairs and I cried.” Five hours later, he heard the astonishing news that more people had survived than who had died and he could not believe it. 

Later, after the crash, Bachman was candid about the distress he expressed privately after performing as the cool professional recorded on the tape. Yet from the time he assumed responsibility for guiding the crippled jumbo jet to the moment before the crash, he said he was too busy concentrating to feel nervous. "I just basically did my job," he said.

And responses from the medical community were no less impressive. Vacationing and off-duty employees at the city’s two hospitals returned to work to help treat the survivors who were badly injured. At times, there were two doctors for every injured passenger. Residents also formed a line a block-and-a-half long around the hospital to donate blood, and their efforts paid off: there was triple the blood needed. Hospitals in nearby Sioux Falls and Iowa City donated so many medical supplies, that one hospital in Sioux City said it received five months inventory in just three hours.  

And here is a piece of history that is both interesting and unsettling. Two years before the crash, local authorities in Sioux City, IA, conducted a disaster recovery drill. The theme? A plane crashes on impact at the airport with injured survivors and mass casualties. The team videotaped the drill and worked with the local Air National Guard to come up with a coordinated response protocol. And they even used the exact runway that would later be the crash scene of United Airlines Flight 232. Two years later, experts said, that training paid off in spades. 

United Airlines Flight 232 Passengers Recall How Devastating Crash Changed Their Lives

Passenger accounts began to roll in immediately after the crash since the U.S media descended on Sioux City. Just to recap, Captain Al Haynes began an announcement to the passengers before the crash. He explained that they would attempt an emergency landing at Sioux City and that his signal, before they met with the earth, would be the word "brace," said three times. 

A roar of anxiety and despair arose from the coach cabin. Many passengers recalled that Haynes also said, "This is gonna be the roughest landing you've ever had." And that ended up being an understatement. 

Bob Ryan was just 28 years old when he boarded Flight 232. First, he heard a sudden, loud explosion, which we now know was the number two engine failing. At that moment, he said it felt like the plane stopped in midair, and passengers were jerked suddenly in their seats. And for a while, he thought it might be all they were going to experience, and he was not yet alarmed. Things seemed to level off. And when the Captain announced that Flight 232 had lost one of its engines, Bob was still not concerned – he knew enough about planes to know that one did not require all its engines to fly safely. 

And then, of course, it became clearer that things were not going well, and the cabin prepared for a rough landing. When the plane impacted, Bob was sitting over the wing section. He closed his eyes and got into the brace position. He said the plane impacted and then slid and tumbled on its belly. Years later, what stands out in Bob’s memories are the sounds: fuel exploding, concrete scraping the ground, the parts of the fuselage tearing up. And the smell of jet fuel escaping after the wing broke off. When the plane finally came to a stop, Bob said it was very silent. Right behind his seat, many of the rows became compressed, and he later learned that’s where many of the fatalities were. Bob soon began to panic because, he even though he survived the crash, he was afraid he was going to burn to death in the fire or die from smoke inhalation. But, Bob escaped uninjured. It took him an entire year before he was willing to fly again. Surviving the crash motivated Bob to live his life to the fullest and work to achieve as many goals as possible. 

And Bob did not want to live a life that excluded flying. Now, every time he is on a plane, he says he’s not afraid, but he thinks about the crash every time. How could he not?

Passenger Jeff Miller woke up in the fuselage hanging upside down in his seat. The crash, he said, was like being pushed down over a cliff blindfolded. After he got out, he waited in the National Guard hangar at the airport waiting to be triaged. He, along with a gathering of other survivors who were not too badly injured, watched footage of the crash on television. As they watched it, Jeff recalled them turning to one another and remarking how unbelievable it was that anyone made it out alive. Little did Jeff know that his son, Jeff Jr., and his wife were also watching the footage. Unfortunately, the news cast mistakenly reported that there were no survivors. Jeff Jr., who was just a child then, said his mother began sobbing and turned the TV off. But, of course, they later received a call with the most astonishing news: Jeff was not dead – he was alive.

Families on United Airlines Flight 232 Recall Gut Wrenching Moments and Amazing Rescue Stories

Many families were travelling together on United 232. And not everyone within a family would get out alive. 

Adriene and Ellen Badis (bad-EEZ) were on Flight 232 along with their two young children. Ellen was sitting on the plane with their 2-year-old son Aaron. Her husband, Adriene, was sitting with their 6-year-old son, Eric, 14 rows in front of them. They all survived, although Adriene and Eric had to be hospitalized for their injuries. Ellen said, “It’s so miraculous how so many of us – how all of us – made it.” 

Her husband Adriene later remarked, “My brother and his wife died. I look at this devastation and say how can anybody live through this?” Following the crash, Adriene Badis, who survived the battlefields in the Vietnam War and then the plane wreck, became a paramedic because he wanted to help people survive tragedies. He said in an interview, "Every day is a precious day. Every day I tell my family I love them.”

Twenty-five years later, Ellen Badis couldn't shake the memories of the 112 people who died. At a reunion of survivors, Ellen and her son Eric met the relatives of Sean Feeney, who was another 5-year-old on the flight who played with her son, Eric. Little Sean died in the crash, along with his parents, Nikki and Dennis Feeney. Eric Badis, now an adult, said surviving such a major tragedy has caused him to live life with relish rather than regret. His advice to others is simple and clear: "Don't be afraid.”

Larry Hjermstad was on United Airlines Flight 232 along with his son, Eric, 12, and daughter, Alisa, 8. They were on their way to visit relatives in Minnesota. Eerily, before the crash, little Alisa told her grandmother that she saw many dead people and asked her mother if it was Ok if they did not fly. That sounds like a premonition to me. Thankfully, they all survived the crash – they were sitting in the middle section of the plane in rows 18 D, E, and F. 

As they approached the airport, Lori Michaelson held her one-year-old daughter, Sabrina, tight in her lap.  Lori said, ″I was just mostly worried about being able to hang on to her.” Nearby was Lori’s husband, Mark, and their two sons, Doug, 6, and Andy, 4. When the plane impacted and flipped around, Lori could feel baby Sabrina sliding to the floor. Smoke filled the cabin, and when their section of the airplane came to a rest, Lori and her husband Mark and their sons fumbled around until finding a way out. As they climbed outside, her husband Mark screamed, ″Where’s the baby?″  Desperate, Mark went back into the wreckage but was stopped when he encountered thick smoke and was forced to back out. 

Then they saw baby Sabrina, apparently unharmed, in a woman’s arms. Asked how she had come to have the child, the woman said some man had handed her over. ″God, I wish he hadn’t,″ said Mark Michaelson. ″I’d like to thank him personally.″ What led to the discovery of baby Sabrina actually ended up being a tragic revelation for another family. 

Child Passengers on United Airlines United Airlines Flight 232 Most Vulnerable After Crash

This next account comes from an adapted excerpt from the book Flight 232: A Story Of Disaster And Survival by Laurence Gonzales as told in an interview with NPR. 

Jerry Schemmel is the voice of the Colorado Rockies team – he’s a sports announcer. He’s on Flight 232 with his best friend and boss, Jay. 

Once it became known that they were going to have a rough landing, Jerry made a decision. He was seated in the Coach cabin and noticed that a lady just ahead of him had a lapped child. This was a boy named Evan and his mother's name, Sylvia. And as little Evan squirmed around in his mother’s lap, Jerry was watching and thinking, I'm going to help these people out as soon as the plane comes to a stop.

And then the crash happened. According to Jerry, then began the breaking of the great aluminum ship – ripping and screaming across the ground, bursting into flames as it went. People were crying out. He watched in amazement as, "a woman still strapped in her seat flew past me on the other side." A ball of fire roared down the aisle above him. Then the vessel arched into the air, breaking up further as it angled over - pirouetted and slammed down onto its back. 

Jerry later said: “It wasn’t a crash-landing. It was us dropping out of the sky and slamming down to the earth. For all the thoughts I had about what it was going to be like, I wasn’t ready for that. I thought, ‘All right, a crash-landing is a crash, but it’s a landing.’ Ours felt like we just dropped out of the sky.”

Jerry was hanging upside-down and was one of the very few still buckled in his area. He released his seatbelt and it dropped to the ceiling. When he realized he couldn’t go forward in the plane, he headed to the back — “chased back there by the smoke” — and eventually saw an opening where part of the plane had broken off. He saw passengers fleeing. He looked for Sylvia, who had been seated ahead of him with her grinning toddler, Evan. They were nowhere to be seen in the smoke.

Jerry quickly made it out of the plane and once outside, he found Sylvia walking toward the back of the plane, dazed but desperate looking. And he stopped her because he knew she was going to go back into the plane and die. And she said, “I have to find my son. I have to find my son.” And Jerry told her, “I'll find your son. You go out and save yourself.”

Jerry returns to the burning plane to find little Evan. The scene inside is too chaotic and in the stream of terrified passengers escaping the plane, he was pushed back outside. And as he stood there, just barely outside the plane, he heard crying. So, he turned, more urgently than before, and he ran through the smoke and fire. Jerry followed the voice of this little crying baby until, finally, he heard the cries muffled below a pile of debris in between seats. He reached in and pulled the little child out. And then he ran. 

When he got outside, he looked at the child and realized it was not Evan. It was another baby. It was the baby Sabrina Michaelson.

Little Evan, just 22 months old, ended up dying in the crash. He had been ripped from his mother’s arms upon impact, thrown to another part of the plane, and died of smoke inhalation. 

Jerry has never forgotten the heartbreak of Evan’s loss. He said, “We’re two and a half feet apart. I can see him peering over the seatback, playing peekaboo with me one moment.” But minutes later: “He’s dead. He’s gone.” We will also hear about Evan’s loss from the perspectives of one of the flight attendants in just a moment. 

Iconic Image Taken of First Responder Carrying United 232 Child Passenger

In addition to heroic passengers, members of the Iowa National Guard streamed in to help, among them Lt. Col. Dennis Nielson. As he approached the wreckage, he saw a small, 40-something woman struggling to carry a child and yelling for help. Nielson said the boy, 3-year-old Spencer Bailey, “fell into my arms” and he rushed the boy to an ambulance. As he did, his picture was taken, and that image — a photograph shot by photojournalist Gary Anderson — went worldwide. It was later memorialized as a bronze statue called “The Spirit of Siouxland.” 

Let’s talk about the little boy that lt. Col. Nielson helped rescue. Spencer, his 6-year-old brother, Brandon, and their mother, Frances Lockwood Bailey, were on the plane. Frances died while her two little boys lived. The crash of Flight 232, he has said now that he is an adult, “is why I became a journalist. Journalism requires deep empathy, if you’re good at it. I love telling other people’s stories. It’s probably why I haven’t gone and tried to tell this story.”

Despite the dramatic image of his rescue, Spencer does not recall anything from the plane crash itself.  Through others’ stories and research he has done, he learned that he was in a coma for five days. He couldn’t really move until he had been in hospital for nine days. Spencer suffered severe brain trauma and his little head was so swollen that his eyes were shut. He said, “Coming out of that coma was like a rebirth for me. Only instead of being born out of my mom, I was now a motherless child.”

Spencer has spoken with his older brother Brandon about the crash, who shared some amazing – and heartbreaking – memories. As the plane was experiencing difficulty, their mother, who sat in between them, had her arms around the backs of Brandon and Spencer, protecting them. When the plane crashed, everything for Spencer’s brother Brandon just went gray. He didn’t go unconscious. He woke up on the runway with his legs broken. And as he was a 6-year-old boy, he thought, if he could just flip his legs around, he could get up and walk away. Almost like if it were a video game.

Brownell Bailey, Spencer and Brandon’s father, learned about the photograph from a relative who had seen the picture on the front page of a paper in Texas. An uncle told him, “I believe that’s Spencer.”

Without his mother, Spencer said, “you just grow up fast. By the time I was 7 or 8, I was doing my own laundry, making do, helping clean the house, contributing, doing what you could ... We were a broken house.”

But, despite all the trauma he suffered, Spencer is grateful for being given another chance. “If there’s something I think about most, it’s probably how grateful I feel to be alive every day. How I feel ... what a miracle it is to breathe, to wake up in the morning and be able to simply take a breath.”

Flight Attendants Recall Horrific United 232 Crash and Harrowing Evacuation

It was the last trip of the day for all four flight attendants, who were excited to be getting back home to Chicago. Serving the cabin that day were Jan Brown (who was also head flight attendant), Donna McGrady, Susan White, Rene LeBeau, Timothy Owen, Barbara Gillaspie, and Jan Murray. I could not track down the one remaining name of the eighth flight attendant. 

What comes next is a blended account as told in countless interviews by Jan Brown and Susan White, who have probably spoken the most about the crash over the years.

The flight was full, and especially unique was the number of children on the flight (numbering almost 50) along with lap babies, or children who are too small for a seat and must be held in the lap of a parent. 

About 45 minutes into the flight, the cabin attendants were almost done serving lunch, when suddenly, the number two engine exploded – to the attendants, it sounded like a bomb just went off. Soon after, one of the pilots made an announcement that they had lost the number two engine, but that they would continue on to Chicago with the other two engines, just at a lower altitude. 

But everything was not fine. 

Jan Brown opened the door to the cockpit and could see the pilots fighting to maintain control of the aircraft. They told her the plane had no hydraulics. At that moment, she knew many of the 296 passengers were destined to die. She recalled years later, "I stepped in the cockpit and part of me just froze. It was obvious this was more than an emergency — the worst possible thing had happened." 

In what seemed like seconds, head flight attendant Jan Brown reconvened with fellow attendants Jan Murray and Susan White. Jan explained the situation to her team. They knew what this meant – that the plane would not have any way to brake when they landed. The flight attendants held hands and prayed, then tried to go about business as usual. As she walked through the cabin, Jan reassured panicked passengers, telling them everything was fine. The rest of the cabin crew swiftly jumped into action. Bags were stowed, seatbelts were fastened and even the coffee pot was locked down. They were preparing the cabin for an emergency landing. They went aisle by aisle telling passengers how to get into the brace position. 

One of the most haunting and heartbreaking instructions the flight attendant gave to passengers was regarding the lap children onboard. They had no seat, no seatbelts, and no way of being secured. The flight attendants, following airline procedures, ordered the infants be put on the floor and wrapped up with blankets and pillows before parents braced for the crash. Even at that moment, Jan Brown’s gut did not feel right about this instruction. She thought to herself, "Jan, I can't believe you're telling parents to put their most prized possession on the floor and hold them. We were basically saying, 'let's hope for the best'. It was the most ludicrous thing I ever said in my life." 

As the flight attendants settled into their own seats and buckled up, Susan White thought sadly, “this is going to be the last day of my life. I will never see my parents again.” She looks out the window when they are about two minutes from landing and notices how fast the clouds are going by – later, she discovers the plane is going twice the normal speed for a landing. 

At the one-minute mark, the captain came over the intercom and shouted, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” One by one, the voice of every flight attendant joined in unison repeating that phrase over and over until impact. 

The next few moments were the hardest. Jan Brown recalled, “We just smashed into the earth.” She was strapped into her jump seat, and at the moment of impact, her exit door blew off and she was engulfed in flames. All the lavatory doors went flying, as did all water and liquids in the bathrooms. Jan would later notice that half her hair had been singed off in the explosion.

Susan White described the impact like being in a tornado with the amount of soot and dirt the plane was scraping up. She was in the tail section that broke off and tumbled across the runway. Pieces of metal from the plane flew all around her. Susan kept her eyes open the entire time so she could see what was coming at her. 

When the tail section came to a stop, Susan was in immediate survival mode. She began yelling, “Release your seat belt and get out!” to anyone who could hear. And soon, flight attendant Donna McGrady’s voice joined in with Susan’s repeating this command over and over – and Susan was so relieved to hear it. Later, many survivors said these commands from the flight attendants during these crucial first moments helped revive them and kept them from going into shock. 

Following the devastation of the crash of Flight 232, Susan sought therapy, and then returned to work and thought she was doing fine for many, many years. It was not until 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked, that her PTSD was triggered all over again.

Head flight attendant Jan Brown remembers one thing more than anything else about the crash: the death of one of the lap children. Thankfully, three of the lap children survived with injuries. One ended up stuck in an overhead locker, another bounced back and forth between a seat and a wall. But 22-month-old Evan Tsao died of smoke inhalation after being torn from his mother's arms by the force of the crash and flying into the back of the plane. We heard about his story earlier. 

Jan’s nightmarish memories of this account are as follows: "Outside the wreckage, I saw Evan's mother. She was going back to the plane to search for him, but it was too dangerous. I blocked her way. She looked up at me and said, 'you told me to put my baby on the floor and now he's gone'. I'm going to live with that for the rest of my life."

United 232 Flight Attendant Jan Brown Turns Toward Advocacy to Make Flying Safer for Children

Ever since that horrific moment, Jan Brown has been on a crusade to ban infants from flying in an airplane from their parents' laps. In 1990, ten months after the disaster, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report urging authorities to do more to protect infants. The NTSB suggested they all be given a spot on the plane and secured in a properly fitted car seat or specially made restraint. It is still making the same case now. Aviation experts often say safety legislation is written in blood. Some believe the rules have not changed because a lap child has not died during an otherwise survivable crash in America since 1994.

One of the cabin crew, Rene LeBeau, died in the crash. She was just 24 years old. Shortly after, United held a private memorial service in the same room for Ms. LeBeau and four non-working United employees who died in the crash. An airline spokesman said more than 380 people attended. And she was just one of 112 people who perished that day, something to not be glossed over or taken lightly. 

United Airlines Flight 232 Memorial Museum Embraced by Sioux City Community

Thirty years later, passengers, the flight crew, and families of the deceased are still healing, said Larry Finley, the executive director for the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation in Sioux City, which has an extensive exhibit dedicated to the crash of United 232.  He said though the crash was many years ago, every week the museum receives at least one person who comes specifically to see this exhibit. 

In addition to this exhibit, the Flight 232 Memorial was built along the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa, to commemorate the heroism of the flight crew and the rescue efforts the Sioux City community undertook after the crash. It is the statue of Iowa National Guard Lt. Col. Dennis Nielsen from a news photo that was taken that day while he was carrying a three-year-old Spencer Bailey to safety.

And THOSE are the many stories of people who experienced the crash of United Airlines Flight 232.

Show Notes:

We start off with a quick story about a woman named Emily whose tweet praising JetBlue pilots for cancelling a flight due to tiredness went viral earlier this month. Take a look at the original tweet as well as an article that shares her thoughts about the experience.


Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Podcast Engineers
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
United Airlines Flight 232

Photograph taken of United Airlines Flight 232 as is began its descent. Source: AirDisasters.com

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Surviving passenger Jerry Schemmel

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United Airlines Flight 232 crash site. Source: Air National Guard

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The scorched runway after United Airlines Flight 232's landing. Source: Popular Mechanics

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Dennis Nielsen is shown carrying 3-year-old Spencer Bailey in this famous photograph taken following the crash of Flight 232. Source: Gary Anderson.

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Aircraft wreckage. Source: Morningside

United Airlines Flight 232

UA 232 Flight Attendant Jan Brown has dedicated the past 30 years to making flying safer for families. Source: ABC News: Niall Lenihan

United Airlines Flight 232

United Airlines Flight 232 crash. Source: Iowa Department of Public Safety