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August 15, 2007

Flight 255: 20 years later, hearts healing, but memories remain

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

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Phoenix-bound Northwest Flight 255, carrying 149 passengers and six crew members, began experiencing problems seconds after lifting off from Detroit Metro Airport at 8:46 p.m. Aug. 16, 1987. The plane began rolling left and right after failing to climb normally, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.

The aircraft struck a light pole, causing the left wing to separate, before impacting other light poles, a rental car facility and vehicles on the ground. It broke apart and burst into flames as it impacted an embankment and skidded down Middlebelt near I-94, scattering victims and debris in its path.

All but one of the passengers — 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Ariz. — perished in the crash, as did two motorists.

The NTSB attributed much of the blame to crew error, citing pilots’ failure to complete a pre-flight checklist and properly deploy the aircraft’s flaps and slats for takeoff. Failure of a warning system contributed to the incident; the NTSB was unable to determine why power to the system was not functioning.

— Cortney Casey

ROMULUS — As jets roared overhead, unnervingly close, attendees at a somber Aug. 16 ceremony near Metro Airport remembered another August night: the night when the worst aviation disaster in Michigan history claimed 156 lives.

Twenty years after the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255, more than 100 people — a mixture of family, media and local residents — gathered near a granite memorial for the victims, nestled amid a grove of pine trees near I-94 and Middlebelt.

Dusk fell as new arrivals embraced and chatted, laughter blending with tears. But as 8:46 p.m. approached, attendees fell into silence punctuated only by the noisy rattle of I-94 traffic and the airplanes above.

“For the 20th time, we gather on this hill so we might remember,” said Father Jim Wieging, before reciting the victims’ names individually and offering prayers for the flight’s sole survivor, Cecelia Cichan, and Lawrence Favio, a motorist who was struck by the plane’s debris but lived.

The smiling faces of the deceased passengers, frozen in time, gazed out from photographs pinned to relatives’ shirts and propped up against the memorial. Colorful stuffed animals, wreaths and bouquets stood in contrast to the dark granite, which bears the victims’ names and a poem called “Final Flight,” beginning with the line, “Where was God?”

A Sunday shattered

Worn out by her new baby, Shelby Township resident Janelle Seitz fell asleep early on Aug. 16, 1987. She was roused by a call from her father, who broke the news that Flight 255 — carrying her brother, Stuart Stoner — had gone down.

A freelance writer and entrepreneur, Stoner, 31, had been headed to California for business.

“All I remember is hanging up, and I kind of went into the kitchen and started opening cupboards,” she recalled of the confusion that followed. “(I thought), ‘Planes don’t crash at Metro. How could that possibly have happened?’”

Her husband, Carl — then a firefighter in Harrison Township, now the fire chief — spent the next two weeks at the airport. In a hangar serving as a temporary morgue, families combed through personal effects while workers tried to match up identified items with unidentified remains.

Carl finally was able to distinguish Stoner, his high school friend and former flat-mate, by his shorts and belt.

“It was my first experience with losing someone who was really close to me,” said Janelle. “The suddenness of it — I can remember at one point, sitting on my mom’s porch prior to the funeral. There was a limousine that went down the street, and I had a weird thought: My brother’s going to get out of there, and this is all going to be a big joke.”

Following advice her mother once gave her, Shelby Township resident Kay Gleason unplugged her TV that night due to the impending thunderstorm. She learned via a call from her son that the plane taking her 49-year-old husband, Patrick, to Arizona for a General Motors assignment had gone down.

“After that, I can’t remember anything,” she said, noting that she did recall driving to the airport and seeing flames. “It was just mayhem.”

Gleason said her biggest regret was that her husband never saw his grandchildren.

“He was a hell of a husband,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “He would have been a hell of a grandfather.

“If you care for somebody, you love them, say it,” she added, turning to her 17-year-old grandson Patrick, named after his grandfather. “The door can close and you never get another chance.”

Two decades later, the pain persists for Washington Township resident Gerrie Klaft, whose son, Don, and daughter-in-law, Lisa, died in the accident.

Don and Lisa — who hailed from Warren and Sterling Heights, respectively — had been married about six months and were in town for a wedding.

“Really, it still hurts,” she said. “You can’t get around it, no matter what.”

Like the others, Monroe resident Tony Zanger will never forget his whereabouts the evening that his brother, Michael, 23, and his brother’s fiancée, Hollins Langton, 26, perished on Flight 255. They were in town for her bridal shower and his high school reunion.

But after 20 years, “I don’t like to focus on that anymore,” said Zanger. Instead, he prefers to concentrate on the positives: that airlines’ emergency plans have since improved, that life can go on, that one day he believes the families will be reunited in the afterlife, he said.

Coping together, apart

Each year, a group gathers at the granite marker to commemorate the crash’s anniversary. For some, the ceremonies are cathartic, a way to connect with the only people who truly understand their grief.

“This is the only time that everybody really gets together,” said Klaft, though Zanger said the families keep in touch throughout the year via e-mail and cards.

“It rejuvenates your spirit,” said Sue Pinsoneault, a Madison Heights native whose sister, Laura Thorell, brother-in-law, Larry, and niece, Krista, died in the crash.

Klaft said attendance has “dwindled down” over the years, but Gleason said a core group of 25 usually shows up.

Zanger rejects criticism from those who suggest that his continued attendance at the memorials indicates a failure to move on.

“Every morning since the crash that we’re getting up, we’re getting on with it,” he said.

After responding to aircraft accidents as a U.S. Department of Defense fire protection specialist, Carl Seitz has seen countless catastrophes, has taken victims’ families to crash sites to facilitate closure. He understands some people’s need to return to the area, but for he and Janelle, it provides no comfort.

Though they attended the first ceremony in 1988, the Seitzes have not returned to the crash site since, and have never seen the granite marker, which was erected in 1994.

Janelle said she feels the best way to memorialize her brother is to focus on the present.

“We just felt this real need to really invest ourselves to the lives of the people who were living, who were around us — our family and friends,” she said. “It has really brought home the fact that anything can happen at any time.”

Lasting memories

Entries — many from friends and relatives — flooded the guestbook on Flight 255’s memorial Web site on the anniversary and the days leading up to it. Gleason’s was among them, stating simply, “We remember.”

But the sheer number of messages from outside visitors illustrated how profoundly the crash also affected others in this region and beyond.

“Every year on this day, I remember,” wrote one Monroe resident, who indicated she did not know anyone on the flight personally. “I will never forget.”

A Canton man wrote, “Today, my thoughts are with all that perished, the lone survivor, and their surviving family and friends. That fateful Sunday night is still fresh in my mind, even after 20 years.”

The incident resonated so powerfully in metro Detroit, even among those not directly affected, because it was “so close to home,” said Janelle.

“A lot of people personalize tragedy when it happens, even if it happens to somebody else,” she said. “You always have that question: That could have happened to me.”