DES MOINES, Iowa – As he sat in a crippled airliner, Ron May braced his head between his legs and prayed for his wife, who was seven months' pregnant with their first child. Everyone on the jet feared they were about to die.
That was back on July 19, 1989, when May was a passenger aboard United Flight 232. The DC-10 was traveling from Denver to Chicago when it lost all hydraulic power after the rear engine exploded. The crew used the remaining two engines to steer a winding course to Sioux City, where the massive plane crash-landed, cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames before breaking apart in a cornfield.
Of the 296 people on board, 184 survived. Most couldn't believe it.
"We're upside down and I'm alive," May, now a 55-year-old Chicago pastor, recalled of the landing. "Everything was chaos."
A quarter of a century later, the flight is considered one of the most impressive life-saving efforts in aviation history. At the time, Capt. Al Haynes was hailed in much the same way as US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who safely ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River in New York in 2009.
The legacy of the crash lives on. It changed the way planes were designed, ensuring more backup systems to prevent the kind of catastrophic hydraulic failure that made Flight 232 almost impossible to control. It also drew attention to the need for emergency preparedness. And the efforts of the crew were remembered in movies and books.
This weekend, survivors will gather for 25th anniversary memorial events at the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation in Sioux City.
Still, some of the safety changes sought by survivors have not happened. Jan Brown, the lead flight attendant on Flight 232, has led an unsuccessful campaign to get the Federal Aviation Administration to end the practice of allowing children under the age of 2 to travel on a parent's lap without a ticketed seat. She is haunted by the memory of a 22-month-old lap child who died in the crash.
"It's heart-wrenching after 25 years," said Brown, now 73. "How truly pathetic that you can still take a lap child, the most vulnerable of our population, and risk flying with them on our lap."
Before she left her role as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year, Deborah Hersman lamented that the rules for lap children had not been changed since the crash.
In a statement, an FAA spokeswoman said the agency recommends that parents secure infants in seats, but said that if they are forced to buy an extra ticket, parents may eschew flying for driving, which could be more dangerous. According to data on the U.S. Department of Transportation website, there have been no preventable infant deaths on planes in 17 years.
The terror on Flight 232 unfolded over more than 40 minutes.
At about 3:15 p.m., an engine on the DC-10 aircraft exploded and chunks of metal ripped apart all three of the jet's hydraulic systems. The plane lost all hydraulic fluid, shutting down the systems that controlled the plane's altitude and direction.
Haynes sought to steer using the two remaining engines. He was aided by instructional pilot Dennis Fitch, who just happened to be traveling on the flight as a passenger. Fitch sat on the floor of the cockpit.
The crew knew the plane was in grave danger.
"The potential was that we could all go straight down," Brown said.
Haynes navigated toward Sioux City. According to the recordings from the cockpit, he said to the crew: "We're not gonna make the runway, fellas. We're gonna have to ditch this son of a [expletive] and hope for the best."
As the pilots tried to bring the plane down at the Sioux City airport, the right wing plowed into the ground, sending the jet into a cartwheel and tearing it apart as it skidded across the pavement into a cornfield.
"It was complete chaos. Bodies thrown about the plane. Others were thrown from their chairs. There was smoke and fire and debris," said Jerry Schemmel, 54, of Littleton, Colorado.
Survivors struggled to get out of the wreckage, emerging into the cool green Iowa cornfield. Schemmel tried to help people out and then went back in for a baby he heard crying.
The crash, captured on video and viewed in news broadcasts, was the subject of extensive review. An analysis by the NTSB found that the airline failed to detect a crack in a fan disk in one of the engines during an inspection process, which ultimately led to the engine failure.
Soon after, DC-10 planes were modified with a shut-off valve to prevent the loss of all hydraulic fluid in future.
The emergency response in Sioux City was also as a model for other cities to match. County authorities had disaster plans in place and had drilled for such situations. They quickly mobilized huge numbers of medical and rescue personnel, bringing in ambulances from more than 28 agencies across a 60-mile radius.
For survivors, the legacy of the crash is complicated, given the many lives lost. Schemmel said he will attend the memorial services this weekend, but then hopes to finally put Flight 232 behind him.
"I think as much as anything, it will be good for my family. Our son, who is 15, is going to come along," he said. "After this weekend, it will be a chapter we can close."