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Looking Back

By Tom Gleason

Former Vice President, Public Relations; Forest City (now Brookfield Properties)

For many people, memories of the former Stapleton International Airport might range from the fun of celebrating a special birthday in the Sky Chef restaurant overlooking the airfield, to the annoyance of the public address messages that continuously blared in front of the terminal: “Attention motorists! Do not leave your car unattended; it will be ticketed and towed away.”

As for me, my most indelible memory was an event that occurred almost 25 years ago on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 19, 1989 – a bright, sunny day that seemed uneventful as I worked at Denver City Hall, where I was the spokesman for Mayor Federico Pena. Shortly after 2 p.m., I was about to drop into a meeting that was underway  in the mayor’s inner office when a member of our security detail pulled me aside to inform me he had just received a report that a commercial airliner from Stapleton International Airport had crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. No other details were available.

I entered the mayor’s meeting and whispered the news to the mayor, promising to convey more information as soon as it was available. I then left the meeting to call George Doughty, Denver’s Manager of Aviation, to get an update. He informed me that the plane was a United Airlines DC 10, Flight 232, which was bound for Chicago when it encountered mechanical difficulties that caused it to crash. Nothing was known at that time about the fate of the nearly 300 people on board.

Not long after getting that information, I traveled with the mayor to Stapleton International Airport, where we joined anxious family members of the passengers from Flight 232 who had been brought to the airline’s Red Carpet Room to receive updates out of the glare of the media that had gathered to cover the story. The room was packed with relatives who were frantic to find out what had happened to their loved ones. As strange as it seems now in this era of cellphone communications, I recall people lining up to use the few landlines available to check in with loved ones at home.

Not surprisingly, airline officials were not able to provide much information at that point unless it had been absolutely confirmed. In the chaos of the immediate aftermath of the crash and the recovery efforts that were still underway, the airline feared releasing inaccurate information to the families of those passengers or crew members who were on board.

The father of a 9-year-old boy who was traveling alone on Flight 232 called his family at home to report he had not received any news about his son. To his amazement, his family told him that his son had just called from a Sioux City hospital to tell his parents he had survived the crash with only a broken arm. The boy’s father collapsed on the floor in the Red Carpet Room totally drained and sobbing with relief.

The good news received by one family, however, seemed to intensify the agony for everyone else in the room. At that point, Mayor Pena turned to George Doughty and said he wanted to fly to Sioux City to see if he could help facilitate the flow of information to anxious family members back in Denver. Although the Sioux City airport had closed following the crash, airport officials agreed to open a runway for Mayor Pena, who had been offered transportation on a Denver company’s corporate plane. The company had its plane standing by because the wife of one of its executives had been aboard Flight 232, and her husband was hoping to fly to Sioux City to learn her fate as soon as the airport was reopened.

Accompanied by a Stapleton International Airport official who was familiar with airline crisis communications plans and a member of the Denver General Hospital psychological trauma team who was prepared to provide counseling to survivors, the mayor and I boarded the private plane just outside its hangar – near what is now Digstown Doggie Daycare Center. Once aboard, my heart stopped as I recognized the company executive sitting alone on the plane: He was the husband of a good friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, had been a passenger on the downed aircraft.

(I would later learn that my friend had survived the crash. Seated in the tail section that broke off from the rest of the plane upon impact, she regained consciousness and found herself hanging upside down from her seatbelt. After releasing her belt, she fell to the top of the cabin, which had come to rest upside down in a cornfield adjacent to the airport. She fought her way to a hole in the fuselage as she scrambled over the carry-on luggage that had spilled out of the overhead storage bins. Although the ground was only a few feet below her when she reached the opening, she hesitated before jumping out of the plane because the ground was covered by burning jet fuel. A fellow passenger behind her screamed at her to get out of the plane because he feared it was going to explode, so she jumped into the pool of burning fuel and then raced through the flames to get to safety, suffering burns on one of her feet along the way.)

As our plane neared the end of its flight to Sioux City and we were making our final approach to the runway that had been reopened, I was struck by how much debris I could see on the ground, even in the darkness.

Upon landing, Mayor Pena immediately met with senior United Airlines officials to be briefed on the recovery and offer whatever assistance could be provided to convey information as quickly as possible to the passengers’ relatives back in Denver. We then traveled to several area hospitals where survivors of the crash had been taken and spent most of the night helping to convey information about their condition back to Denver.

Even today, I recall how wonderful everyone we met in Sioux City was and how well they responded in the emergency. Above all, one of the true heroes was the pilot of Flight 232, United Airlines Captain Al Haynes who, along with his co-pilot and a DC 10 training instructor who happened to be on board, wrestled the controls of the disabled plane to land it in such a way that 186 people on board, including the three pilots, survived the crash.

In an odd twist of fate, it was 10 years later, while working on the redevelopment of Stapleton International Airport, that I was asked to escort Captain Haynes on his return to Stapleton International Airport to be interviewed for a television special. It was an honor to be able to thank him personally for saving the life of my friend and so many other passengers who flew out of Stapleton International Airport on that bright, sunny day in the summer of 1989.

Photo Denver Aviation System

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