Survivors tell how they cheated death

Published March 24, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Robert Spear found himself boarding the plane unexpectedly when the intensifying snowstorm ruled out his original flight.

As the jetliner taxied down the runway in the blustery snow, some sixth sense told him to cinch his seat belt a little tighter, that this would be no ordinary flight.

At the last moment, a ticket attendant who recognized an actor, Richard Lawson, cheerfully promoted him to first class, one of those little courtesies that always tickled him. This time the gesture may have saved his life.

There were 27 passengers killed Sunday night in the crash of Cleveland-bound USAir Flight 405, but another 24 people managed to cheat death in the ugly evening, some just barely.

Their memories are crowded with overlapping visions of mangled metal and balls of fire, of gushing water and the stench of jet fuel on their clothes. Some can still hear the anguished shrieks for help, not all of which were answered.

Some passengers described eerie sensations that something was not quite right with this flight, that the de-icing hadn't been done properly or the speed was errant.

In the twisted wreckage, as they lay submerged in icy water strapped upside down in their seats, as if part of a Houdini escape act, most thought they would die.

When Spear, 24, an auditor for Peat Marwick from Fairfield, Conn., left for the airport at 3:20 p.m. for a 7 o'clock flight, he allowed himself extra time. He knew snow lurked in the clouds.

He had an audit to do in Canton, Ohio, and was scheduled on a USAir flight out of La Guardia that would connect with a plane in Philadelphia.

Arriving at the airport with hours to spare, he settled himself at a bar, ordered a couple of hot dogs and some french fries and took in the NCAA basketball game between Syracuse and the University of Massachusetts.

When Spear got to his gate, he was told that delays in his flight made it impossible for him to make his connection in Philadelphia. It was suggested he take USAir Flight 405 to Cleveland. He had 15 minutes to get to Gate 1. When he got there, he was assigned seat 2A and was the very last to board.

Richard Lawson, an actor in his mid-30s who recently joined the cast of the soap opera All My Children, in which he plays the architect Lucas Barnes, was going to Cleveland to see some basketball players.

As a sideline, he does drug counseling for the National Basketball Association. Monday, he had a date with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Originally, he planned to leave Monday but switched to Flight 405 to try to beat the snow.

He was assigned seat 6D. But an attendant who recognized him said he would try to squeeze him into first class.

As boarding began, Lawson was upgraded to the first row. Later on that awful night, he learned that at least one passenger in the row farther back, where he had originally been assigned, had died.

After the passengers boarded, maintenance workers began de-icing the plane. Passengers described the sound as similar to passing through a car wash.

Then the pilot announced an odd mishap: the de-icing truck had stalled behind the jetliner, blocking its path. After a while, the truck was restarted and the pilot said the plane would be de-iced again.

The pilot also said, "For you flap watchers, don't worry. The flaps are up just so the wheels don't kick ice up onto the flaps."

Lawson was unsuccessfully trying to read the newspaper.

"I had these bad vibes," he said. "I fly 70 to 80 times a year and I only had this feeling once before, about 10 years ago, and the pilot aborted the flight. And so I started to pay attention. I was carefully watching the de-icing truck."

He said that the left side of the plane was never de-iced initially and that the right side didn't get de-iced a second time. The vibes got worse.

As the plane began to roll away from the terminal, the pilot mentioned that there were several planes in front of it, so it might be a 10-minute wait.

"Yeah, right, 10 minutes," Lawson thought.

Nearly a half-hour later, about 9:30, the plane crept to the front of the line and was cleared for takeoff.

Several passengers said that in the moments before and after takeoff they sensed something amiss. "The speed seemed suspect to me," Lawson said. "It didn't seem fast enough."

Laura Trego, 23, who sat in seat 4A, said that as soon as the plane took off she felt compelled to crumple her body into the crash position.

Spear had buried his nose in his accounting books, for he was studying to take his CPA exam in May. Some extra sense spoke to him, too. He tightened his seat belt. "I thought to myself, "Just in case,'

" he said.

The snow was steady as the plane gathered speed and lifted off. It was barely 50 feet in the air, passengers said, when it veered sharply to the left. Then the nose began to ease back to the right.

The man next to Lawson said, "They're trying to abort the takeoff."

"Oh God," Lawson said.

Then, passengers said, the plane bounced hard several times on the runway. There was the screeching sound of metal tearing. A fiery light filled the windows. The plane began to flip, perhaps several times.

"I heard ground being chewed up," Lawson said. "The whole world was turning over in slow motion."

Oddly, Lawson said he never heard a peep out of any of the passengers. Spear, a row behind him, said he heard lots of screaming.

"They were saying, "We're going to crash! Help us!'

" he said. "They were screaming, "Oh my God!' I thought about getting into the crash position. Before I did, we had already crashed."

The plane, snapped into pieces, slammed into the bay. "The next thing I knew I was underwater," Lawson said.

For a brief moment, he was convinced he would die. "I was thinking, "I know that I'm dying,' " he said. "Something in my mind said, "Just relax into this death. Die peacefully.' Then another part of my mind said, "Forget that. Try to get out of there, man.' I felt the body of the man next to me struggling against mine. I grabbed my buckle and finally undid it and a surge of adrenaline came over me and I pushed everything aside and I finally breathed air."

Lawson looked about. "Over me was a hood of twisted metal and wire," he said. He saw a man's face peering at him through a hole in the metal. "Come toward me!" the man yelled.

Lawson clawed toward the opening and yanked himself through. He sat down. He thought he had swallowed fuel, because he was breathing fitfully. He lay down, gasping.

Spying flames dancing toward him from the back of the plane, he knew he had to get out, so he jumped into the water. It was only waist high. Twenty yards away, he saw the shore, and he waded toward it and pulled himself up onto layers of railroad ties, where other survivors had already gathered.

"I felt incredible cold," Lawson said. "I shivered for six hours afterward." He suffered minor scrapes and was expected to be released from the hospital today.

There were two heroic rescues by spouses. Ronald Ross, a radiologist who had second-degree burns and a broken shoulder, managed to drag his wife, Helen, more than 25 feet through the water. She had fractures in both legs and suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation, and was in critical condition Monday.

Tom Merrill, who was seated next to his wife, Connie, in the fifth row, couldn't extricate himself from his seat belt as he floundered underwater. Mrs. Merrill dived down and unbuckled him and both made it to shore. (See story, 1A)

The crash tore Laura Trego's seat from its foundation and she found herself floating in her seat. Undoing her belt, she waded to shore, supporting a man who had broken his ankle.

One survivor, soaking wet and bleeding, struggled up the embankment, where he was met by a rescuer. "Are you from the plane crash?" the rescuer asked him.

"No," the crash survivor said. "I made a wrong left off the parkway."

When the plane crashed, Spear's glasses flew off and everything became an unpleasant blur.

"I remember the remarkable noise," he said. "It wasn't deafening. But it was so loud."