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3:32 am EDT        73°F (23°C) in South Rockwood, MI

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I am preparing to begin another week of work in a little bit over 12 hours. Last week was reasonably uneventful, save a situation at one of our stores where I had to split the smallest trailer compartment a whopping three ways. What with all the re-positioning of the truck inherent in splitting one trailer compartment among three underground storage tanks, that unload took well over an hour and caused my entire night to run past 11 hours.

In this update from November 9, 2005, I remarked on the thirtieth anniversary of Michigan’s best-known maritime disaster — the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. We are approaching another anniversary of a major transportation disaster in Michigan: tomorrow will mark 20 years since the August 16, 1987 crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 on takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan/Wayne County Airport in Romulus.

It had been a hot Sunday afternoon in Detroit, and thunderstorms were developing perhaps 20 miles (32 km) from Metro — though not right over the airport itself — around sunset. The weather, however, was not a factor in the accident; instead, a terrible error by the flight officers in the cockpit proved fatal for 149 of the 150 passengers and all six crew members. The McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 had been delayed leaving its original departure point of Tri-City Airport (now MBS International Airport) in Saginaw, MI, and due to late-night noise restrictions in effect at the final destination of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, CA, there was something of a rush to complete the intermediate stop in Detroit and move on to the next stop in Phoenix, AZ.

This rush to get off the ground caused the crew, led by 57-year-old Captain John R. Maus of Las Vegas, NV and 35-year-old co-pilot David J. Dodds of Galena, IL, to neglect to complete the pre-takeoff checklist. A critical part of the checklist was to ensure that the MD-82’s flaps and slats, on the trailing edge of the wing, were extended so as to allow the wings to generate enough lift to get the plane airborne. It was discovered soon after the crash, by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators, that the flaps and slats were in their retracted positions.

Without its flaps and slats extended, the plane behaved exactly as any knowledgeable pilot would expect it to do — it took forever to begin its takeoff roll, and almost immediately upon leaving the runway, it went into a stall condition. (“Stall” in a fixed-wing aircraft means that the wings are unable to generate lift for the given airspeed. It can be caused by banking the plane’s nose upward too far, or as in this case, by failing to properly configure the wings for the maximum lift required at takeoff.) Witnesses saw the plane bank uncontrollably, first to the right and then almost 90° to the left, before it struck three light poles in the Avis car rental lot, the Avis building itself, and finally an earthen berm on the east side of nearby Middlebelt Road just south of Interstate 94. The impact occurred at 8:46 pm EDT.

A massive fire, fueled by the plane’s load of jet fuel, erupted upon the MD-82’s final impact. Debris from the plane more or less exploded outward from the scene, killing two motorists driving on I-94 and injuring five more. Rescue efforts, which were initially stopped by the huge fire, would be further hampered later in the evening as the aforementioned thunderstorms moved in and began a downpour in the area. Miraculously, one survivor would be found: Cecelia Cichan, a 4-year-old girl from Tempe, AZ, who lost her parents and 6-year-old brother David in the accident.

Contrary to a popular myth that developed in the aftermath of the disaster, Cecelia Cichan’s mother Paula did not cover her daughter to protect her from burning debris; they were actually found a few yards apart, Cecelia alive and Paula dead. Cecelia wasn’t totally unscathed, though; she needed to undergo two months of skin-graft surgeries at the University of Michigan Hospital to treat severe burns she suffered in the crash. By nothing more than the grace of God, as far as I’m concerned, Cecelia Cichan did survive; she was eventually adopted by an aunt and uncle from Birmingham, AL, and would go on to earn a psychology degree from the University of Alabama in 2006.

Now using the family name of Cichan-Lumpkin, having added her aunt and uncle’s surname to her own, Cecelia has had zero contact with the media in the 20 years since the crash of Northwest Flight 255. Her aunt and uncle, for obvious reasons, wanted her to have as normal a childhood as possible given the circumstances, and they kept the media away during the rest of her childhood — and I can’t say I blame them. I would be fascinated to hear what Cecelia remembers of that horrible night twenty years ago, and how she came to adjust to it, now that she is an adult, but that may very well never happen.

One other reasonably famous figure in the crash of Northwest Flight 255 was Nick Vanos, a reserve center for the Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team. He was vacationing in Michigan with a friend during the off-season after his second year in the NBA, and was heading back to Phoenix aboard 255. Vanos’ death in the crash would impact the Suns’ late-1980s fortunes dramatically, as they were counting on him to further develop into their center of the future.

In 1994, a memorial would be erected a handful of yards from the crash site, at the corner of Middlebelt Road and the on-ramp from Middlebelt to I-94. The black granite memorial bears a poem entitled “Final Flight” and the names of the 155 passengers and crew who perished in the disaster. There is a web site for the memorial which can be visited here. To this day, Northwest Flight 255 remains among the deadliest air disasters in American aviation history.