Crash of Flight 5191

Matter of luck: Two tell of surviving major jetliner crashes

Relatively few people live to tell about the terror of riding a jetliner as it plummets to earth.

Kendra St. Charles-Hall, who is in the process of moving from Ohio to Louisville, and Lexington’s Paul Fast are two of the lucky ones -- members of an exclusive group of more than 2,500 people who have survived major U.S. air crashes since 1982.

Those who survive airliner crashes -- and the friends and family members who mourn those who die in them -- instantly become part of “an elite, awful, horrific club,” St. Charles-Hall said.

St. Charles-Hall, 54, was on a respirator for several days after the crash of USAir Flight 405, which crashed on takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport on March 22, 1992. The plane, which was not properly de-iced before taking off in a snowstorm, crashed into Flushing Bay, killing 27 of the 51 people aboard.

St. Charles-Hall had a punctured lung and six broken ribs, plus burns to her face, feet and hands.

After the crash, she regained consciousness upside down, still strapped in her seat, in icy water. She managed to somehow get herself onto the rocks at the edge of the bay, where she was rescued.

“The horror I saw that night was beyond any imagination,” she said. “I’ve never known fear like I did that night, and I certainly never thought I would be in a place where I would have to fight to save my life.”

On Wednesday, St. Charles-Hall went to the Crowne Plaza Campbell House, where the families of the Comair 5191 victims are staying, to assist in any way she could. That’s something she’s done whenever possible since 1994, when a USAir jet crashed near Pittsburgh.

“People always ask me about ‘survivor’s guilt,’” St. Charles-Hall said. “I’ve come to feel more like it’s ‘survivor’s responsibility.’”

St. Charles-Hall was part of a 22-member task force that helped guide the creation of the Family Assistance Act of 1996. The act created a family advocate position at the National Transportation Safety Board and a set of procedures that airlines should follow to support families of those killed or injured by airline crashes.

St. Charles-Hall’s daughter was 16 and home alone at the time her mom’s plane crashed. So St. Charles-Hall made sure that airlines knew about the things they could do in future crashes -- including finding out whether the family members they notify are alone, and sending someone to be with them if no other family or friends are available.

Fast, 59, an account executive for WLEX-TV, survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989. A friend and co-worker at Channel 18, Joe Oliver, was traveling with Fast and also was among 185 survivors of the crash; 111 people died. Oliver now lives in Melbourne, Fla.

The news coverage of Sunday’s Comair crash brings it all back -- too vividly, Fast and St. Charles-Hall said.

“It’s very upsetting to me, to say the least,” Fast said.

Both survivors said their thoughts often revolve around the random nature of who lives and who dies in such catastrophes.

“There were nine of us in our row and only three of us lived,” Fast said. “You wonder: ‘Why did I survive?’ It still sticks in my mind.”

St. Charles-Hall has had the same thoughts -- she changed seats twice before takeoff, and both people who were in the other seats died. “You know how fragile life is,” she said.

She’s sometimes been asked for tips about how to survive a plane crash. She’s the first to say that it was random luck.

On Fast’s flight, the plane was cruising at 37,000 feet when a fan disk in the tail engine ruptured, cutting the plane’s hydraulics. Because hydraulics control descent and braking among other functions, there was little the pilots could do to control the landing.

The passengers knew for 41 minutes that there would be a crash -- they just didn’t know how bad it would be. The plane hit the ground at 250 mpg and cartwheeled in flames. It was one of the few major airline crashes ever recorded on videotape.

While his friend Oliver was injured, Fast had just cuts and bruises. He saw up close everything that a fiery air crash leaves behind.

“It’s a horrible thing,” he said.

St. Charles-Hall said the Comair crash has thrown her for an emotional loop and she wept thinking about the surviving co-pilot, the families of the people who died and the first responders.

“My heart aches for them,” St. Charles-Hall said. “There is always such a ripple effect with these things.”

After the crash, she had an insatiable appetite for all the details of the crash -- and she said that investigators should tell the families everything they want to know, no matter how painful the details.

One thing she has learned in the 14 years since her crash: “There is no closure. ... The families are going to get an education, only because they have to.”

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