A heart-pounding, real-life drama about how ordinary people rise above their fears and muster extraordinary courage and strength in the face of danger.
A psychologically illuminating, real-life drama about ordinary people and how they behave in extraordinary circumstances
At the time of the ASA 529 crash in August 1995, I was a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Though I didn’t take part in any of the news coverage, I followed the news reports and was amazed. The tale of survival was remarkable, even breathtaking. A plane had fallen from the sky, crashed and burned, and nearly two-thirds of those aboard had survived. The news coverage faded quickly. The story seemed so underreported.
As time passed, I kept wondering about the people who were aboard that plane – who they were and how they were doing. We’ve all wondered what it’s like to go down in an airplane. Nine minutes, twenty seconds is a long time. In a falling plane, what does a person think or do with that much time? It is an experience that provides a rare window through which to examine the ways ordinary people behave in crisis, allowing us to see what moves some to courage and perhaps others to cowardice under extreme stress.
We live so much of our daily lives at the surface. But here was a dramatic and extraordinary story with resonance that went much deeper. I never forgot about the heroic crew and passengers on that flight. About two and a half years later I began to pursue this story.
It’s not about the plane. It’s about the people inside the plane, ordinary people performing in extraordinary ways. This book is also about survival and what it means to survive. ASA 529 allows us to see ourselves in real terms. It is an uplifting tribute to heroism and courage, love and faith, and to overcoming fear and terror. These people faced the ultimate test and won. I hope readers of this book will think about their lives in a new way, especially in terms of what truly matters in life.
Other than the fact that there were many survivors, I was drawn to the flight by its relative smallness and obscurity. It was a tiny plane, a virtually unknown airline, and the disaster occurred in a “middle of nowhere” field in west Georgia. I quickly discovered that ASA 529 was small only at first glance. As I burrowed deeper, into the emotional layers I felt its largeness in scope and significance. There are many valuable meaning-of-life lessons here.
The 29 people on this plane deserve to be remembered. There are many remarkable people – good, decent, and surprisingly complex individuals – surrounding us every day. Unless they’re celebrities, we don’t take note of them. So often, accounts following a crash are a list of names of those who perished and nothing more: “Captain Ed Gannaway, 45, Dublin, Ga.” I wanted readers to know who lived between those commas and understand their courage and strength.
This book is about our will to survive, and our will to care. There is tragedy here, also redemption and triumph. Six children already have been born to ASA 529 survivors.
A passenger named Jennifer Grunbeck survived the crash, defying odds with burns across 92 percent of her body. At a Chattanooga hospital, she heard a priest administering Last Rites. Beneath the morphine, Jennifer thought, “This priest is in the wrong room!”
She willed herself to live through the first month, the second, and into the third, determined to raise her four-year old son, John. Doctors and nurses, fearing infection, cautioned her against a visit, but she insisted. Her body was wrapped in bandages, her head shaved, and her arms were locked at the elbows. When John entered her hospital room with his father, he walked past her to the window. Jennifer’s heart sank. Finally, John sat in his dad’s lap, alongside Jennifer who sat in an armchair. Jennifer spoke to him. It took a few moments before John looked up and said, “It really is you, Mommy. I can tell by your eyes.” He reached out and delicately stroked his mother’s hand. Her eyes filled with tears. This was the moment she had lived for.
When we imagine a plane crash, we envision a plane in a nosedive and passengers screaming and shrieking. This was a semi-controlled descent. People didn’t cry out; they all turned inward, revealing the complexity of our spirit.
There were three categories of responses: the spiritual, the intellectual, and the physical. By that, I mean passengers thought about their relationship with God, their loved ones, and about what they might experience physically if their plane crashed. One man silently prayed that his wife would have the strength to raise their four children without him. Another frequent traveler, twice divorced with two teenage sons, realized his sons didn’t even know where he was as the plane was falling. He was furious with God for allowing him to die alone without a familiar hand to hold. A woman passenger tore the cover from her paperback to write a last note to her two sons. Another man wondered silently, “Will I be sucked outside the plane if the window breaks?”
The people on this plane were remarkably valiant in ways large and small. One man fled the plane and ran to a safe distance. When he looked back and saw others beginning to emerge, several on fire, he risked his life and went back to help. Several men in the burning fuselage stopped to help another passenger they didn’t know, delaying their own escape through fire to the field beyond.
Some have seized the moment and taken their lives to a higher ground. The passenger furious with God as the plane fell, quit his job and moved to Alaska for two years of introspection. He found his way back to his ex-wife. She saw big changes in him; he looked at her differently, too. They rekindled their romance and, years later, remarried. Another left his job as a middle manager, moved with his wife and their four kids back to his native Kansas City, and founded his own one-man ministry. Two men in their 60’s retired early to spend more time with their families. Some continue to struggle profoundly with survivor guilt, believing their lives were purchased at the cost of others.
It was mesmerizing. I conducted about 500 interviews, reaching eighteen of the nineteen survivors of ASA 529 and traveling to eight different states. Some of those I contacted responded to my request instantly; others took weeks or months. One took more than a year and Jennifer Grunbeck needed two years before consenting to sit for an interview. These conversations were at times therapeutic, cathartic for survivors. They had questions they’d wondered about for several years and asked, “How are the others doing?” They didn’t know the others by name, only by appearance or the clothes they wore on August 21, 1995. I was able to tell them parts of their own story.
Every interview produced tears. Some were mine.
It says that we are in very capable hands. There are a lot of people, many of them in the aviation industry, who are looking out for us. At every turn, the passengers aboard ASA 529 discovered people waiting to help: the pilots and flight attendant, air traffic controllers who cleared the airspace so the plane could make its emergency retreat back toward Atlanta, the emergency/rescue personnel, and residents of homes ringing the field who ran toward the fire and tended to them. Many of the ASA 529 survivors have returned to flying. As one said, “If I had been in a car crash, I would still get in a car again.”
A plane crash is an aberration. An aviation expert at M.I.T. studied aviation accident rates during the 1990s and determined that you could fly on a U.S.-based regional airline once a day without dying in a crash for eight thousand years. Flying is not perfect but it is, by any definition, safe.