Mich. rescuers relive wreckage, bodies 20 years later
By John Wisely
Detroit Free Press
Copyright 2007 Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Twenty years haven't dulled the images of Michigan's deadliest plane crash:
A wall of fire on Middlebelt Road.
A sea of yellow blankets covering corpses.
A faint moan from a little girl whose arm twitched as firefighters approached.
For most Michigan residents who didn't know passengers aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 255, the images of that night 20 years ago come from news media accounts. But first responders called to the site of one of the deadliest aviation disasters in U.S. history have more vivid recollections.
As families of the victims prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the crash near I-94 and Middlebelt on Thursday, some of those first responders recalled the night they can't ever forget.
The DC9 bound for Phoenix crashed seconds after taking off from Metro Airport, killing 154 people on board and two on the ground. A 4-year-old girl, Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Ariz., was the lone survivor.
Investigators concluded that the plane crashed because the pilots failed to properly set the wing flaps, and a warning system that should have alerted pilots to the problem lost power and failed.
Firefighters were dispatched to what they thought was an explosion, but they learned en route that a plane had crashed. When they arrived, they saw hundreds of pieces of burning wreckage.
"I remember looking northbound up Middlebelt from Wick Road and seeing a wall of fire," said Romulus Fire Chief David Allison, who was working that night.
He could see pieces of the plane and human remains scattered across the ground. Dusk was just settling when the plane crashed at 8:46 p.m., and crews worked through the night trying to locate bodies and cover them with disposable yellow blankets before the sunrise exposed them to gawkers.
"We were running low on yellow blankets, so we started tearing them apart and using the pieces to cover up body parts," Allison said. When the sun rose the next morning, observers saw a sea of yellow.
Three Romulus firefighters who approached the crash from the north -- Dan Kish, John Thiede and Roy Brindamour -- were credited with finding Cichan, still strapped in an airplane seat that was facedown a few steps from where their fire engine stopped near Middlebelt and I-94.
Thiede, now a Romulus fire lieutenant, said Kish heard something that sounded like a moan. Thiede lifted the seat and saw a little girl's arm move.
"In retrospect, I figured a person couldn't live through that," Thiede said this week. "It was a weird feeling."
They called over Brindamour, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, who worked for Northwest Airlines as his day job. He unbuckled the girl's seat belt and examined her.
"I saw something black sticking out of the back of her head, and I remember my hands starting to shake as I went to check it," Brindamour said this week from his home in Minnesota. He feared it was a piece of plane debris; he was relieved to learn it was just her ponytail.
The girl moaned quietly as they strapped her to a backboard to transport her. That backboard now hangs in the lobby of the main fire hall in Romulus with Cichan's picture on it. Thiede said he has been in touch with Cichan recently, but declined to discuss it. Cichan's family has guarded her privacy, and she has never spoken publicly about the experience.
"I don't think she's ready," Thiede said.
Kish, who is retired now, was reticent, too, declining to discuss that night.
"I'd really rather not," he said this week. He said he plans to attend the memorial service Thursday.
All three firefighters shunned the label of "hero" that some tried to attach to them. They considered themselves lucky.
"The crew from the north end got all the credit, but everyone did their job that night," Thiede said.