My Sister's Plane Crash, Miracle in Santa Monica
"His nose was up, but he was coming down. When I saw that, I said, 'he's in trouble.'" Bill Fulco, crash witness
"The engine was still running, but just as I lost sight of the plane, there was a deadly silence. So I knew it was going down." Sonya, Beebe, crash witness
Statistically, airplane crashes are extremely rare, but when they happen, they're almost always deadly. The USAirways plane crash Thursday, already dubbed "Miracle on the Hudson," was truly miraculous in that all crew and passengers survived.
The people on that plane, already telling their amazing and terrifying stories, and those sure to follow in the coming days, have much reason to rejoice. They lived to share their extraordinary personal tales.
I didn't know anyone on that plane. But we are far too familiar with plane crashes in our family. My sister's husband was killed in a plane crash two and a half years ago.
Incredibly, he and my sister had survived another plane crash together 17 years earlier. We could have called it "Miracle on Somebody's House." The picture up top shows them being rescued from that crash. Here's the story.
Labor Day weekend, 1989. Husband, Son and I were at the Jersey shore soaking up the last days of summer. Family, friends, the usual crew. Glorious weather. What could be better?
Then I got that call. The one that sucks your breath from your chest, churns your stomach into clay, white-knuckles your hand around the phone. The one that sits you down and then has you up pacing, only to sit again.
You have to speak calmly, ask the right questions, get the important information. You're afraid to hear the answers. Regardless, you've got to be stronger than the person making that call.
In this case the person on the other end of the phone that weekend was my nephew, calling from LA to tell me his mother--my older sister Judy--and her husband Bob had been in a plane crash. A really bad one. Right in front of his eyes. Ghastly. Horrific.
Judy and Bob, both licensed pilots and vintage airplane enthusiasts took off from Santa Monica airport on an equally beautiful day in a friend's World War II P-51 Mustang. You know them from old movies. They have Plexiglas canopies. You can see the pilots inside, one behind the other.
My brother-in-law was at the controls, my sister co-piloting in the rear seat. Her son was watching from the ground as he'd done countless times, a little annoyed that day because he was learning to fly and had wanted to go in her place.
They lifted off, began to climb into the clear blue sky and suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, an actual bolt flew off the engine and into the propeller. Then, adding to the nightmare, birds followed. The plane spiraled out of control as my brother-in-law fought to keep it aloft.
Horribly, gravity prevailed. The plane rolled, rolled again, and crashed on top of a house next to the airport.
Dozens of onlookers rushed to the scene from the airport, including my nephew. An airport fire truck arrived first. And stopped the would-be rescuers in their tracks, pulling them away from the house where the crippled plane lay smoking. A large, deadly spill of airplane fuel was pooling around the perimeter.
The danger was enormous, the risk huge. The house, the plane and it's injured--dead?--occupants were surrounded by a moat of petrol that could explode into a fireball at any moment.
As often happens in such situations, ordinary heroes rise to the occasion. A fellow pilot--a Vietnam veteran--broke free, waded through the foam being sprayed on the fuel and climbed up through the smashed house to the plane. My nephew, galvanized by fear and desperation, followed. Together they managed to pry open part of the canopy.
Can any of us imagine watching our own mother's plane crash, then crawling onto the burning wreckage to attempt a rescue, hoping against hope it's not instead a grisly recovery?
They say mothers will do anything to save their children. I'm here to tell you, children can do the same when the situation's reversed.
As it turned out, the two elderly sisters who owned the house were thankfully, blessedly, not at home -- they were out walking their dog.
Miraculously, my sister and her husband were alive. Barely. Both unconscious, bleeding, battered. Judy's seat belt had broken and thrown her forward into Bob's seat. His belt held, but that kind of impact is literally more powerful than a speeding locomotive. He was thrown forward into the controls. So his legs were shattered. Along with his pelvis.
Judy's injuries were much worse. All of her ribs were broken. All. Of. Them. Both collarbones too. One shoulder. One arm. Both lungs were punctured. Her liver and spleen damaged. Her face ... no, I can't.
My sister Judy being rescued from the plane.
And the next day I was on a plane--USAirways--to LA. I didn't even think about the ... what? ... weirdness of that. I just went. Because my sister's life was on the line. Because my nephew and his younger sister were flipped out, unable to cope with the myriad details and decisions of trauma management. And because that's what you do for family.
We have many side stories of healing and dealing, now part of family lore.
One you'll appreciate: we learned after the fact that the genius who repaired Judy's shattered face so brilliantly was Michael Jackson's personal plastic surgeon. (And no, she looks nothing like Jacko).
Judy and Bob both survived. It took them almost a year to fully recover. Memories faded. Wounds healed. Life went on. Until it didn't.
Irony ... back then I flew out to LA to help Bob and Judy regain their normal lives. Seventeen years later I flew out to help Judy plan Bob's memorial service, and to say good bye.
The IronyThose who fly small planes are at much higher risk for accidental death than the average commercial airline passenger. No matter how careful the pilot's planning and maintenance, things can go wrong, especially with vintage planes.
And sadly, there would be no miracles for Bob on his final sortie. Only for those whose lives he saved at the cost of his own.
I'm so very glad everyone survived to tell about the Miracle on the Hudson. In our family, we know only too well how lucky they are.
Reviewing the crash aftermath, still spraying foam.
FYI: my OS post on Bob's final flight: Anniversary of a Death, Addition of a Label.
NOTE: THERE ARE COMMENTS BELOW FROM JUDY FERN (NO AVATAR) ... AKA MY SISTER, STAR OF THIS POST. She answers some questions and replies to some comments. Feel free to ask her more and comment directly to her here too.