ASA Flight 529 was more than three miles high when a propeller blade broke off its left wing. The Atlantic Southeast Airlines twin-engine turboprop carrying 29 people shuddered and fell.
In window seat 2A, a young woman who had served in the Army thought she’d heard a small cannon explode. She looked out and saw the propeller declare war on the left wing. She slammed shut her window shade, frightened by the sight and what it meant.
Flight attendant Robin Fech grabbed the metal kitchen galley to steady herself. Soda cans trembled. Under her breath, Fech cursed.
In the seventh row, a shipyard worker from Maine thought the plane had hit an air pocket.
An engineer with a New York accent thought they’d struck a bird.
So did the Baltimore schoolteacher in front of him, though she wondered, What type of bird flies this high? A peregrine falcon, perhaps.
A young deputy sheriff had lost track of time and altitude. He thought the plane had hit a tree or skimmed a mountainside. So severe was the shudder that his partner next to him, a law enforcement lifer, grabbed the young deputy’s left knee to keep from falling on him.
Almost reflexively, the flight attendant told passengers, “This plane is designed to fly on one engine.” But in a moment, seeing the damage, even she didn’t believe that.
In the cockpit, the co-pilot thought the propeller separation sounded like someone had hit a trash can with a baseball bat.
As the plane dropped — dramatically at first, then more gradually — the veteran pilot beside him said, “What the hell’s going on with this thing?”
In nine minutes and 20 seconds, the plane would crash. Just before 1 p.m. on Aug. 21, 1995, ASA Flight 529 would slam through a grove of pine trees and into a hay field in Carroll County.
The plane would bounce twice, breaking apart as it went. The cabin would depressurize and fill with sunlight and humid air. A fuel-fed fire would break out at 1,800 degrees. Then, unspeakable horror.
Of the 29 people aboard, 19 lived to tell about it. In the telling, survivors almost without exception have asked themselves the same question about those nine minutes and 20 seconds: Was it really that long?
At home, that’s long enough to walk around the block or load the dishwasher.
But how long is it when your plane is falling?
Long enough to fill the passenger cabin with the quiet of Judgment Day.
They sat three across in narrow seats with thin backs, each row containing a single seat to the left of the aisle and two to the right. They rode in a tube, claustrophobic to some, 10 rows in all.
From the cockpit door to row 10 in back was 31 feet.
That tight space contained 27 lives, full and varied: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, atheist, white, black, Asian, never married, once divorced, twice divorced. The passengers of Flight 529 had 18 spouses, 41 children and more than two dozen grandchildren.
The plane was bound from Atlanta to Gulfport, Miss. Passengers’ destinations included a grocery store in Mobile, Ala., a hospital in Jackson, Miss., a chemical plant in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
There were two deputy sheriffs from Virginia en route to retrieve a fugitive. A federal prosecutor investigating riverboat gambling in Gulfport. A New Orleans woman returning home after interviewing for a job as an ASA flight attendant. An 18-year-old airman heading for his first assignment in Biloxi. A young Mississippi minister coming back after giving a trial sermon that had wowed a Midwest congregation.
With them was a crew of three: a divorced 37-year-old flight attendant working long hours for $20,000 a year; a young, self-confident first officer from California who was five months into his childhood dream of being a commercial pilot; and the captain, a seven-year veteran at ASA who loved flying the high-performance Brazilian-made plane, once telling his wife, “I think I can get one down in a field somewhere if I have to.”
A few passengers had expected to be on a jet, not a turboprop. Some had even thought they were flying Delta, only to be told ASA was “the Delta Connection.”
Stepping aboard en route to a family get-together in Mississippi, Baltimore teacher Dawn Dumm and her 64-year-old mother took two front-row seats. Neither liked the feel of the tiny Brasilia. Dumm thought the carpet and seat coverings looked worn, like those on a school bus.
Dumm had become more careful after a series of personal tragedies, including her father’s cancer death and heart surgery for an infant child. The common theme, she decided, was that she had had no control over these things. A devout Catholic, she now collected decorative angels.
Dumm once heard a travel expert say that synthetic material burns into your skin in a fire whereas cotton burns away from it. On this trip, she wore clothes made of cotton, as did her mother, Mary Jean Adair. In an emergency, they would be ready.
To her family, Adair had a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to know when things weren’t right. To Adair, this plane did not feel right.
“I don’t like this at all,” she told her daughter.
“Just think of it as an adventure” was the reply.
Moments later, still at the airport, an overhead light panel came loose in the fifth row. A mechanic came aboard to reattach the unit. Asked if he had fixed it, the mechanic told flight attendant Fech, “I think so.”
Hearing this, Adair asked her daughter: “Don’t you think we should get off?”
9:20 to impact. When the blade broke in the clouds 20 minutes after takeoff, ASA Flight 529 was climbing past 18,000 feet.
The Brasilia yawed and fell sharply to the left. A cup of apple juice spilled at the feet of Angela Brumfield, the aspiring flight attendant in the second row.
Passengers napping in the second, fourth and sixth rows shot up in their seats. In the third and seventh rows, one man reading a golf magazine and another a novel about Vietnam instinctively turned left toward the noise.
The plane fell nearly 4,000 feet in the next minute.
The roar of the left engine — a noise reassuring in its steadiness — suddenly quieted. The right engine whined louder.
For 33 seconds, the aircraft shook, at times violently.
Passengers focused on what had happened to the left engine. Once sleek, it now seemed a junk pile. The metal covering of the engine had ripped apart and peeled back, exposing the machinery’s guts. Wires flapped in the winds. Hydraulic fluid, oil and jet fuel poured into the airstream.
The propeller unit was not where it was supposed to be. Three of the four propeller blades had been blown out of position by several feet and now were lodged against the front edge of the wing. The fourth blade was missing.
To David Schneider, a young construction engineer in the eighth row, it looked like a bomb had exploded in the engine.
Ed Gray, a 100,000-mile-a-year frequent flier from Connecticut in the twilight of his business career, thought, After all these years of flying, now it happens!
Chuck Pfisterer, a purchasing manager for a paper company, was a nervous flier even before the propeller separated. Usually conversation with other passengers got him past his nerves. That and a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.
Dumbstruck, Pfisterer watched the fluids spray. This can’t be! he told himself. Pfisterer feared an engine fire. He couldn’t take his eyes off the left wing.
Fech slid open the window shade in the second row to look for herself. The sight of the mangled machinery was enough to make her shut the shade at once.
Passengers, turning from the engine, looked to the flight attendant for an explanation.
Looking back at the frightened eyes fixed on her, Fech felt as if she had 26 children on board.
A survivor by nature, Fech was an emotive woman from Athens, quick with self-deprecating humor. She hadn’t made a career as a ballet instructor or in marriage (“Best party I ever went to; I just went home with the wrong person”). At 37, her passions were her job, which she performed with command, and ASA’s frequent fliers, whom she embraced and greeted with a small-town familiarity: “Hi, Hon-eey!”
She had yet to have her toughness tested in crisis, though she understood long before this flight that passenger safety was her primary responsibility. That was spelled out on a nightshirt she had at home: “I’m Here to Save Your Ass, Not Kiss It!”
Fech had little room to work in: The aisle was just 20 inches wide and, at 5-foot-6, she bumped her head unless she walked precisely down the middle.
8:19 to impact. At 14,200 feet and falling, Fech improvised.
The passengers’ questions came: “What happened? Are we going to be OK?” Fech placed her hands reassuringly on their shoulders and said, “These planes are designed to fly on one engine.”
This was true, Fech knew, when the inoperable engine was a shutdown, but not, as in this case, when it was deformed.
She told passengers, “It’s one of the first things flight crews practice — going in with one engine.” Again, she knew, this applied to shutdowns.
One by one, Fech snapped shut the window shades on the left side of the plane. “We don’t need to be looking at that,” she said. The plane stopped shaking. The smoothness helped Fech’s credibility with passengers. So did the clouds, which kept them from recognizing the rate of their descent.
But violent tremors soon undid her work. “That’s just what turbulence feels like with one engine,” Fech lied.
When Fech reached the sixth row, the nervous flier there blurted: “Do you think we are going to make it?” Pfisterer’s voice was tense and loud enough to be heard across the aisle. Fech assured him, “Of course, we’re going to make it.” But the nervous flier kept talking, an edge to his voice. “How can that fly like that?”
Fearing his alarm could infect the other passengers, Fech stepped to the next row.
She heard the bells’ ding-dong and saw a small red light flashing on the wall panel in back. The cockpit was calling.
Thank God that Ed Gannaway is flying this plane, she thought. They’d flown together often, and once had handled smoothly a medical emergency on a flight originating in Augusta. Gannaway was like a big brother to her, even advising her on her 401(k) plan. His voice soothed.
And soothing was just what Fech, the emissary from cockpit to cabin, needed most.
Behind the cockpit door, all hell had broken loose.
As soon as the propeller broke, a chaotic clamor filled the cockpit. Chimes signaled a master warning: Ding, ding, ding. Then came a synthesized woman’s voice meant to alarm, a voice known cynically to pilots as “The Bitch.”
The Bitch called out: “Autopilot, engine control, oil.”
For about 20 seconds, Gannaway and the co-pilot, Matt Warmerdam, were on the ragged edge of losing control of their plane.
“We got a left engine out,” Gannaway said as the shuddering intensified.
The chaotic clamor: Ding, ding, ding . . . “Autopilot, engine control, oil.”
“I need some help here,” Gannaway said.
The plane pulled hard left, trying to turn itself, flip and spiral into the ground. The damaged propeller was creating excessive drag and a loss of wing lift. Had it simply fallen off, controlling the plane would have been easier.
“What the hell’s going on with this thing?” Gannaway asked.
The two men took on the machine, white-knuckling their steering columns and staring wide-eyed into instrument panels for heading, altitude, air speed and the power setting on the good engine.
Together, they fought to regain control. They put on their headsets, and then Warmerdam’s call went out.
“Atlanta Center. AC 529, declaring an emergency. We’ve had an engine failure. We’re out at fourteen two at this time,” he said, referring to the altitude.
Atlanta Center responded, “AC 529, roger, left turn direct Atlanta.” They would turn back to Atlanta.
Early that morning, Gannaway had left home in Dublin, Ga., for his base in Macon. A compulsive exerciser, he’d run his usual three miles first.
His wife, Jackie, had seen fear in him only once, after he’d made a scheduled run to Gulfport through thunderstorms that diverted his plane to three airports.
With his fuel low, he later told his wife, he had prayed for a safe landing.
Now, manipulating the flight variables over the next 45 seconds, Gannaway said, “It’s getting more controllable here . . . the engine . . . Let’s watch our speed.”
7:01 to impact. To Gannaway, Warmerdam said, “I’ll tell Robin what’s goin’ on.” He hit the call button.
If Fech had hoped for a soothing call, she didn’t get it. Hoping to hear Gannaway, she got Warmerdam instead.
This troubled her because she knew Gannaway liked to be in contact with the cabin and to be in total control of his plane.
“OK, we had an engine failure, Robin,” Warmerdam said. “We’ve declared an emergency. We’re diverting back into Atlanta. Go ahead and, uh, brief the passengers. This will be an emergency landing back in.”
Trained to ask questions in such moments — How much time do we have? Will there be a warning or bells? What is my signal for evacuation? — Fech didn’t think to ask one. She said, “All right. Thank you.”
At 10,000 feet, still in the clouds, Gannaway realized Atlanta was too far away. He told Warmerdam, “We need an airport quick.”
Warmerdam at once radioed Atlanta Center: “We need an airport quick, and, uh, roll the trucks and everything for us.”
The center replied that West Georgia Regional Airport near Carrollton was 10 miles away.
Gannaway told his first officer, “Engine failure checklist, please.”
6:45 to impact. Fech took a deep breath, gathered herself, pushed the P.A. button, then turned to face 26 passengers. Repeating what she had been told, she announced the plane was headed back to Atlanta. She sounded firm even though she was as frightened as she had ever been in flight.
She announced, “The cockpit crew has confirmed we have an emergency. We have an engine failure.”
The nervous flier in row six thought to himself, Yeah, you’ve got an engine problem, all right!
Fech reiterated that the plane could fly on one engine.
She told passengers they needed to prepare, just in case: Make certain your seat belt is low and tight, place your feet flat on the floor, review your emergency card.
Then she explained the brace position — crossed wrists against the seat back in front of you, foreheads pressed against the wrists — and told passengers she wanted individual demonstrations. “You’ll have to prove this to me,” she said. She asked if there were any questions.
No one had any. Fech hurriedly cleared off the galley.
On the left side of the plane, passengers inched up their window shades.
4:46 to impact. The Brasilia continued to fall, though at a slower rate, about 1,500 feet per minute.
At 7,000 feet, this gave some a false sense of security.
A few understood the principles of flight. But for most, flying was an act of faith in the people who build, inspect and fly planes. “You put your trust in them,” Dumm, the teacher, would say.
Living in an age of flight, these passengers boarded planes without a second thought, never questioning how 24,000 pounds remained aloft. They accepted the seeming exactitude of flight, the overall safety and speed of it. What Lewis and Clark once took more than a year to cover could be covered now in less than four hours.
Anticipating a safe touchdown, Gray, the Connecticut businessman, imagined a foam landing strip and a bouncy ride in.
The young deputy in row nine thought back to childhood fears and the way things always turned out OK. This will be over, too, Tod Thompson reminded himself. Besides, he didn’t want to be one of those people screaming up and down the aisle.
Two rows forward, David McCorkell, a computer trainer from Minnesota, believed things would turn out fine. He’d landed in a blizzard as fire trucks lined the runway. When that plane landed safely, every passenger clapped. Now, McCorkell was more worried about the loss of a half-day’s billing. A couple of hundred dollars.
Guilty, that’s how Fech felt as she walked the cabin.
Guilty that she had anything to do with this mess.
For Fech, the hardest part was seeing passengers’ shock and disbelief while trying to conceal her own.
At each seat, she corrected brace positions, gently pushing down heads and lifting elbows.
Fech asked the three passengers sitting by emergency exits if they would accept responsibility for opening the doors once the plane came to a stop.
A quivering right hand went up in row five, where the retired woman from Asheville, N.C., said softly, “No, no.” Lucille Burton wanted to sit with her husband, Lonnie, who earlier had moved to the back for more leg room.
Fech called out for a volunteer to take Mrs. Burton’s seat to keep the weight and balance in the plane roughly as it was.
From the back, a tall, well-groomed federal prosecutor — who loved nothing more than standing before juries — suddenly stood.
“I’ll do it,” Bond Rhue said.
He smiled and held up his emergency card. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve read this.”
Rhue, investigating riverboat gambling in Mississippi, wore a tie featuring little pigs. He thought it apt for a trip to the South, reasoning, “I am going to the country.”
Rhue took 5C. The Burtons resettled in the back row.
Except for Fech, hardly anyone spoke. Most passengers were sitting next to strangers.
They didn’t even make eye contact.
They stared at the left wing, then at Fech, then stared at the left wing some more.
In row six, Alan Barrington, a human resources manager from Roswell, looked at his emergency card, read about flotation devices and exit rows, and thought, If we crash, this card won’t do me any good.
The right engine whined on. In the ninth row, Charles Barton asked his partner to open his window shade. Barton wanted to see the good engine. “No way,” Thompson said. “If that propeller isn’t turning, I don’t want to know.”
Hastily, Fech instructed passengers to remove pens and other sharp objects from their pockets. Take off your eyeglasses, too, she said, and put your drinks into the seat-back pockets.
In row six, Barrington listened closely. Did she say pour the drinks out? he wondered.
Immediately, Barrington prayed: “Heavenly Father, when this plane crashes and I die, I’m ready to go home. But please, Lord, let me ask for just a few favors.” He first asked to die quickly. Then he asked that his wife have the strength to raise their four young children and that they always remember their father’s love.
Then Barrington’s thoughts turned more primitive: What does it feel like to have your head and limbs ripped off? The thought tingled his spine. Will I even feel it? Will I go to heaven immediately?
Two rows ahead, Gray wasn’t thinking of God. For one thing, he didn’t believe in God. He believed that life had its own set of natural circumstances and rhythms. An engineer by training, he had diagnosed the problem on the left wing in his own way: This was an abnormal part of life’s natural circumstances and rhythms.
In row two, the young woman from New Orleans who was preparing to become an ASA flight attendant thought of death. Brumfield didn’t want to panic, least of all in a plane. Tears came, so she stared at the ceiling, hoping to keep them from running down her face.
Thompson, the young deputy, looked at the right-side window in row nine. He wondered: If this glass breaks, am I going to be sucked outside?
2:44 to impact. With the plane at 4,000 feet, air traffic controllers in Atlanta told the pilot that West Georgia Regional Airport was eight miles away.
“We can get in on a visual,” Gannaway replied from the clouds.
An unknown voice from another aircraft visited the drama: “Good luck, guys.”
” ‘Preciate it,” Warmerdam replied.
2:09 to impact. For the first time, Gannaway peered over his left shoulder and saw the damage to the left engine.
“It’s just hanging out there,” he said.
In row two, John Tweedy, the engineer with a New York accent, thought of his wife and 3-year-old son. He decided life was good and that he wasn’t ready to leave.
In row three, Barney Gaskill, a 57-year-old Ohioan, thought of his family, too. He imagined his wife, daughter and son, his grandkids and his mother. They lived in different states, and in a dire moment such as this, that bothered him. He felt the need to address them collectively.
In row seven, McCorkell no longer bemoaned the loss of a half-day’s billing. Now he was angry with God.
He didn’t believe he should die alone. At 37 and twice divorced — the last time just 13 months ago from a woman he still loved — he’d never had this thought before. He traveled so regularly that his two teenage sons didn’t even know where he was at this moment. Now all he wanted was a hand to hold, or at least to see someone familiar in his last living moment.
Denied this, bitterness filled him.
Fech moved purposefully through the middle rows, correcting brace positions. In row eight, Schneider concentrated on his emergency-door responsibility.
“I know I’m supposed to pull this handle right here,” he told Fech.
Schneider’s confidence gave Fech someone to count on. But then her own insecurity came into play: He knows I’m scared and he thinks I need to be reassured.
At 28, Schneider felt a young man’s invincibility. He told himself, People know when they are going to die, and I am not going to die. A Catholic, he tended to necessities and prayed a form of the rosary: an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be, ending with: ” . . . as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Up front, Dumm, the Baltimore teacher, asked her mother to take her seat belt on and off, on and off.
“If the door in front of us is blocked,” she told her mother, “you’ll have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl. Count the rows, because the fifth row is where we have to get out.”
Dumm thought of her husband and their two sons. With her mother’s attention diverted for a moment, Dumm quietly tore the cover from her paperback novel and, in a nervous scrawl, wrote a goodbye note:
“You are the Lights of My Life. Always, Mommy.”
Then she wrote to her boys: “Lucas and Zeke: Be Good Always. Prayers.”
Dumm folded the note and tucked it inside the fanny pack around her waist.
“What should we do now?” her mother asked.
“I think we should pray,” Dumm replied.
They joined hands and said the Lord’s Prayer: ” . . . Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . ”
1:28 to impact. The cockpit chaos continued.
“Sing-, single-, single-engine checklist, please,” said Gannaway, never a stutterer until now.
“Where . . . is it?” Warmerdam replied.
The first officer had his own question: “Where’s the airport?”
Seconds later, Atlanta Approach Control gave him his answer: still six miles away.
Now passengers noted a rural mosaic: fields, trees and scattered houses.
Fech stood in the back at the U shape formed by rows 8, 9 and 10. She noticed Lucille Burton standing by her back-row seat, as if confused. “What are you doing?” Fech asked. “You’ve got to sit down now.” Burton’s husband helped fasten her seat belt.
A voice deep within told Fech to hurry back to her jump seat.
So she headed up the aisle. Standing by the front row, she realized they had broken through the clouds.
0:38 to impact. From the cockpit, speed and altitude dropping, the pilots saw a 10-acre field to their left near Carrollton.
The plane trembled. In the cockpit, a synthesized male voice warned that the plane’s altitude was only 500 feet.
The landing gear and flaps remained retracted.
“Too Low Gear,” The Bitch warned.
Fech saw the trees and quickly backed the last few steps toward her jump seat. She shouted, “Brace position! Brace position! Stay down! Stay down!”
In row six, the nervous flier, seeing the pines, shut his window shade for the first time. He told himself, You’re dead.
The Maine shipyard worker in row seven flashed a painted-on smile to the stranger next to him and said, “Good luck.” The computer trainer from Minnesota stared back, fear in his eyes.
The teacher’s mother made the sign of the cross.
A few raised their heads one last time to look. Seeing this, Fech shouted, “Heads down! Heads down!”
Behind her, in the cockpit, she heard the recorded warnings through the closed panel door.
She’d never heard The Bitch before. The sound terrified her.
0:08 to impact. Still four miles short of West Georgia Regional Airport, Fech tightened the strap on her jump seat. Holding her head upright and rigid, she placed both hands beneath her thighs in her own brace position. She shouted to her passengers, “Hold on, y’all! This is going to be rough!” She closed her eyes.
Several breaths from impact, Warmerdam didn’t hear her. He’d dreamed of flying since the age of 6. Now, nearly touching the trees, feeling the plane’s vibrations, hearing the warnings and The Bitch, and then Gannaway’s voice in his headset, “Help me, help me hold it, help me hold, help me hold it,”
Warmerdam squeezed the steering column, continuing the fight.
Just then, he imagined his young wife. A pretty, final image. Warmerdam left his goodbye to her on the cockpit voice recorder: “Amy, I love you!”
Impact. Its left wing tilted slightly downward, ASA Flight 529 hit the trees at nearly 140 miles per hour — slamming through 360 feet of pines in about two seconds. First the plane sliced off treetops, then went lower, chopping off trunks.
Forty feet past the trees, the left wing struck the hayfield first, and tore off.
The left side of the plane’s nose, near the rudder pedals by the captain’s left leg, dug into the earth.
In the front of the passenger cabin, a woman screamed.
In the second row, Brumfield, no longer wanting to be a flight attendant, whispered, “Oh God, oh God, oh God . . . “