By John Faherty
The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX, AZ -- Twenty years ago today, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 from Detroit to Phoenix crashed moments after taking off.
There were 155 people on board, 110 from Arizona.
Even with time, however, the numbers do not tell the story. The true scope of the tragedy is revealed in the flight manifest.
The entire Best family from Mesa, a mother and father and their three small children, died.
The Byelich family from Chandler was wiped out. Two branches of the Geiger family, one from Phoenix and one from Gilbert, died on the plane.
Justin Keener, a 12-year-old boy, was flying on his own for the first time.
His mother and stepfather did not hear news of the crash until they arrived at the airport and wondered who would be paging them.
Despite all that, the crash of Flight 255 may be best remembered for the one passenger who made it.
The survival of the passenger in Seat 8C, Cecelia Cichan, continues to astound because the crash was remarkable for its ferocity even in the physics of air disasters.
Flight 255 was cleared for takeoff at 8:44 p.m.
After an unusually long takeoff roll, the plane finally lifted off. But the DC-9 never soared upward.
The left wing clipped a 42-foot light pole in a rental-car lot about half a mile from the end of the runway.
The plane then started hitting the ground and breaking apart as it skidded along a road.
Almost immediately, it was engulfed in flames.
The death toll of 156 includes two people in cars.
There were many witnesses to the crash, including a number of people in the flight industry, because the plane crashed so close to the airport.
They all spoke of the long takeoff, the steeper-than-normal pitch of the plane as it got off the ground, and the fact that the aircraft simply never climbed high enough.
All that pointed to improperly engaged flaps and slats on the wings, the mechanisms for getting the plane to actually lift off.
Still, the idea that the pilots could take off without properly configuring the aircraft seemed to astound investigators.
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration likened it to a driver pulling out into traffic without shutting his door.
Another problem was the warning system that should have told the pilots they were heading for trouble. It failed to activate.
Months after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings.
Investigators concluded that the pilots, in a chain of errors, failed to set the plane's wing flaps and slats for takeoff and failed to follow a required taxi checklist that would have uncovered the error.
None of that mattered on the night of Aug. 16, 1987, when people started arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to pick up their spouses and children and friends.
Some already knew there was a crash.
Others were told at the airport.
Twenty years later, they say they have never been the same since Flight 255 crashed.
A sister lost
Maureen O'Connell, who now lives in Maryland, was a teenager on the night her 24-year-old sister, Debra, died in the crash.
"It was shocking. There are no words to describe it. It was so devastating," O'Connell said.
Earlier this summer, her parents went to the place where the plane crashed. Her mother still visits Debra's gravesite a few times a month.
To this day, the whole family feels a profound sense of loss about the life Debra never got to live.
"She had everything ahead of her," Maureen said. "She missed her chance to get married and have kids. To live a life. She started her life, but she never lived it."
Jennifer (Bagnato) Walker, now 42, had just graduated from Northern Arizona University and was watching television in Flagstaff when news of the crash came across her screen.
It never occurred to her that her parents would be on the flight because Tony and Jan Bagnato were flying home to Scottsdale from New England.
"I thought, how horrible for those people, turned off the TV and went to bed," Walker said from her home in West Virginia.
An hour later, her brother called and told her that their parents had connected through Detroit and were on Flight 255.
"Life was never the same again," she said. "In that moment, everything changed."
Some of the lessons, although painfully learned, have been good for Walker.
She says she suddenly knew what really mattered in life.
She also began to appreciate "that every day matters."
Walker says her parents, both 50, had a terrific marriage.
"They were very much partners in their marriage," she said. "They were still very much in love. They still held hands when they went to the movies."
Walker fought the temptation to become angry or bitter, but she says she still wishes her parents were part of her life.
"I still miss them every day," Walker said. "Sometimes, it's the big things like the birth of a child. But usually, it's the small things, like making chocolate-chip cookies."
A son lost
While there were entire families on the plane, 12-year-old Justin Keener was flying home alone after visiting his aunt and uncle in Michigan.
Robin Spotleson still cries when she talks of her son.
She also tries to think of what he would be like as a grown man.
"He was just a sweet boy, kind of quiet," she remembers. "He was very kind. Very loving."
She and her husband, Justin's stepfather, arrived at the airport unaware the plane had crashed. She was surprised to hear her husband being paged when they walked into Sky Harbor but presumed it was to tell them that the plane would either be late or early.
She continued toward the gate while he went to hear the message.
When she arrived at security to walk through, she said that it was very quiet and that people stepped back when a policeman approached her.
"The policeman walked up to me and touched my arm, I remember that," she said. "He started walking me. I remember a door opening, and there were people crying and grabbing at me."
Spotleson has managed to get through the hard times, in part, because she and her husband had a daughter five years later. Her faith also tells her that she will see her son again.
"Twenty years is a long time," she said. "Justin would be 32 now. But it still hurts, I still think of him every day."
The doomed flight lasted only about 19 seconds, but Spotleson cannot bear the thought that Justin was alone during those terrifying moments.
After the crash, she learned that man sitting next to her son was a father flying without his children.
"In my heart, I believe he was holding on to my son," she said. "I have to believe that."
The sole survivor
To this day, there is no explanation for how Cecelia Cichan survived Flight 255. Her parents and 6-year-old brother died in the crash.
A story circulated that Cecelia was found with her mother, Paula Cichan, protectively wrapped around her. That was not true.
It was pure chance that spared Cecelia, especially in light of the absolute devastation of the plane and the explosive fires that ensued.
She was found by a paramedic who heard her moan and saw her arm twitch.
The medical examiner for Wayne County in Michigan had no explanation for how anybody survived.
"I have never seen such complete destruction," Dr. Werner Spitz, a veteran of 20 crash sites, said at the time. "There is not a bone left intact in the bodies."
After 24 hours of confusion about the girl's identity, her grandfather identified her by her chipped front tooth and purple fingernail polish her grandmother had applied for the trip.
Cecelia had broken bones and burns, but she recovered.
Her story captured the attention of the country and the world.
She received thousands of gifts and cards and stuffed animals.
A billboard went up in Phoenix wishing her well. She was on the cover of magazines.
Cecelia was raised by Rita and Frank Lumpkin, her maternal aunt and uncle who lived in Birmingham, Ala.
From the beginning, the family steadfastly protected her from publicity.
She is now a young woman. A recently married college graduate and a devout Catholic, she has never spoken publicly about her life.
She declined interview requests from The Arizona Republic.
She does, however, check in with people connected with Flight 255, sometimes speaking with people who lost family members on the plane.
It is clear that many people who lost loved ones in the crash have nothing but good thoughts for her, and she sometimes updates people about her life, like when she turned 21 a few years ago.
Sometimes, she writes a quick sentence: "I just wanted to say that I appreciate this memorial site. I never go a day without thinking about the people on Flight 255."
Sometimes, like before the 17th anniversary three years ago, she writes more.
"Hi everyone. I just wanted to give a quick update. I am doing great. I know the anniversary is coming up soon, and that is a sad time for us all. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you ... families and friends of the passengers of flight 255 ... even those of you who are concerned but have no direct connection to the crash. Thanks to everyone who keeps me in their prayers as well! God Bless!"
The Arizona Republic