Miracle in the Blizzard
The remarkable thing about the fiery crash was not that 28 people died, but that 54 lived
Swirling snow and gusting winds stormed outside the warm cabin as the DC-9 jetliner sat on the runway at Stapleton International Airport in the western US city of Denver, Colorado.
From her seat at the back of the plane, flight attendant Kelly Engelhart had a clear view along the cabin’s centre aisle to the cockpit door. In this secure cocoon, the 77 passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 1713, bound for Boise, Idaho, were settled.
A petite, effervescent woman with black hair and large, dark eyes, Kelly thought about her husband, Tim, an investment banker, and their children, five and three, whom she had kissed goodbye that Sunday morning. It was 15 November 1987.
Kelly, 35, had flown in some foul weather during her nine years as a flight attendant. But today, uneasy about the near-blizzard conditions, she had asked two friends to pray for her safety. She was also disturbed by First Officer Lee Bruecher’s extremely youthful appearance. In fact, the 26-year-old had completed his DC-9 flight training only nine weeks earlier. Before joining Continental, he had been fired from another job for his incompetence as a pilot.
In an extraordinary step, Kelly questioned Captain Frank Zvonek about Bruecher. He told her not to worry. He assured her that he would not let Bruecher land the plane on their return flight to Denver. Allowing him to be at the controls during takeoff was so unthinkable that it did not occur to Kelly to ask that question.
Once settled on the plane, Kelly chatted about upcoming work schedules with Chris Metts, the flight attendant seated to her right. Continental Flight 1713 was almost full—United Airlines, the other major carrier operating out of Denver, had cancelled its Boise flights because of the storm.
Finally, the DC-9 jetliner was in position for takeoff. Of all the technical preparations and safety checks that culminate in that moment, one glaringly obvious point had been overlooked. Pilots are required to visually check the wings every 20 minutes during freezing wet weather, and no more than 20 minutes should elapse between de-icing and takeoff. Ice particles no larger than grains on coarse sandpaper can disrupt the flow of air over the wing and have a critical effect on the plane’s ability to lift during takeoff.
On this day, 27 minutes had elapsed since Flight 1713 had been de-iced—seven minutes beyond the maximum time. Neither pilot walked back into the cabin to inspect the wing surfaces.
One other critical factor was at play. The captain had delegated primary flying duties to Bruecher. In addition to his dismal record with small commercial aircraft, Bruecher had spent only 36 hours flying big commercial jet aircraft. Zvonek himself had only 33 hours of experience as a DC-9 captain. Neither man had ever flown a DC-9 in weather like this.
At 2:14 p.m., young Bruecher throttled the engines. For the next 60 seconds, Flight 1713 hurtled down the runway, reaching a takeoff speed of 270 kilometres per hour. In the back, Kelly felt the nose lift off, and then the main wheels. We’re okay, she thought.
Seconds later the plane’s right wing dipped sharply. For a moment, the plane was back on an even keel, but the effort seemed to overcompensate. The fuselage rolled violently to the left.
“My God, Kelly!” Chris yelled. “We’re going down!”
The two flight attendants reached for each other, and at that moment she heard a sickening, crunching thud as the wing slammed into the ground, followed by the fuselage. Kelly heard three small explosions—then a large one. Towards the front, an orange fireball filled the cabin. She closed her eyes. The plane flipped over and began a long, grinding skid.
A relentless crescendo of savage scraping and crunching filled Kelly’s ears. The cabin went black. Kelly was thrown violently against her seat belt and shoulder harness. She could feel snow and dirt and gravel digging into her face and body as the crumpled fuselage tore apart at its seams. Then, all motion ceased.
Kelly had a sense of hanging upside down. Darkness enveloped her. She had never known such stillness—she wasn’t sure whether she was dead or alive. Then her nostrils twitched. She realized that fuel was everywhere. She remembered the fireball and waited for the end.
Bound for Boise
Anne Smoke Nasrallah, shy and dark-haired, had accepted a music scholarship to the University of Montana, then transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago and graduated with a degree in molecular biology. In her second year at the University of Montana, Anne had married fellow student Tony Nasrallah, who was studying computers and business. A year later she gave birth to a son, A.J. In May 1987, their second son, Peter, was born. Anne and her husband moved to Florida to be near the Nasrallah family. Tony went to work as a computer programmer while Anne looked after the boys. The move took them far from her parents in Boise. So it was with special joy that Anne was bringing the children there, and as they waited to change planes in Denver, Anne called her parents. She put A.J. on the phone. “I’m coming, Gamma!” he told his grandmother. Hurriedly, Anne said their flight had been called. “We’ll see you soon!” she told her mother.
Onboard, David Daniel, a high-school agriculture teacher from the farming town of Melba, Idaho, sat with his wife, Tami. Dave, 33, was a quiet, thoughtful man whose grey eyes easily broke into a friendly smile, while Tami, 26, was full of enthusiasm. Grouped around them were the eight students they had taken to the annual convention of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) in Kansas City, Missouri. The group had arrived at the Kansas City airport that morning happy, exhausted, and looking forward to the flight home by way of Denver. Then the United Airlines agent told Dave that they were canceling all flights to Denver due to bad weather.
The agent suggested they might want to check with Continental. Dave wondered if he should put his group on any flight in such bad weather, but in the end decided to make the switch. He stood at the gate and handed out the boarding passes and seat assignments himself. In Denver at last and ready to go home, eight youngsters settled into their seats on the plane. Some tried to read; others slept or chatted lazily.
Anne Nasrallah had seated her children in the first row of the economy cabin, giving A.J. the window so he could look out at the snow. She held six-month-old Peter in her lap. Minutes later, the baby was delightedly batting the oxygen mask dangling from Kelly Engelhart’s hands as she gave the safety demonstration. When she finished, Kelly leaned down and gave Peter a gentle pat under the chin. This sent him into a frenzy of gurgles. Then Kelly went back to her seat at the rear of the plane and waited for takeoff.
Conspiracy of Errors
The two Continental pilots had never met until this flight. After completing the standard checklists, they fell into a pattern of aimless chatter. In their last 30 minutes of conversation, saved by the cockpit voice recorder, the pilots exhibited no concern about the effect of the freezing weather on their aircraft’s wings. They never sought clearance from air-traffic control to leave the gate and proceed to the de-icing pad. Thus, as Flight 1713 moved slowly through the swirling snow, its presence was unknown to the tower controllers who, because of the weather, relied entirely upon radio communications to establish the location of each plane. The confusion spawned by the plane being ‘lost’ contributed to the long period of time between de-icing and takeoff.
The captain, Frank Zvonek, was 43 and lived with his wife and two children in Carlsbad, California. Formerly a non-combat pilot in the US Navy, Zvonek went to work for Continental in 1969. He served as a first and second officer on B-727s and DC-l0s, and later as a flight engineer. He was assigned as a DC-9 captain just two weeks prior to the crash.
Bruecher, unmarried, lived with his parents in Houston, Texas. While employed as a pilot with a flying service in 1985, he was fired for incompetent performance in flight checks. In March 1985, Bruecher went to work as a first officer for a Texas commuter airline. By 1986, he advanced to captain of one of the small commuter planes. He continued to be plagued by negative reports about his performance, particularly his tendency to become easily disoriented.
In July 1987, Bruecher was hired by Continental and entered the company’s DC-9 training programme. On 8 September, he spent his sixth and next-to-last session in Continental’s DC-9 simulator. In the words of the instructor, Bruecher “completely lost control of aircraft … Altitude and airspeed control generally way out of limits.” Had the instructor not intervened, Bruecher would have, in effect, crashed the plane. A month later, Bruecher was certified to go to work.
Zvonek and Bruecher may not have been very skilled as DC-9 pilots, but they possessed an extremely important standard for employment by Continental at that time: they were willing to work for substantially less money than their counterparts at other major carriers. (“The industry average for a captain with 10 years’ experience is $1,08,000 [Rs 13,99,680]* compared with $52,500 [Rs 6,80,400]* at Continental,” according to a 1987 Business Week article.) [*as per 1987 conversion rates from USD to INR]
The world will never know how Bruecher and Zvonek might defend or explain their actions. Both men died in the crash. So did 26 others.
From Fire to Ice
Everything was still, black, quiet. Tami called to her husband. Dave could hear her voice, very near, but he could see nothing. He was drenched with fuel—his mouth and eyes as well as his entire body. Seconds before, he had seen the orange fireball and was now puzzled that he could not feel heat. Then he heard Tami’s voice again, calling out his name in a tone more quizzical than frightened. He answered her, and they began trying to figure out where they were.
Dave was upside down, on his left shoulder, still strapped to his seat. His left hand was pinned against his face. His right hand touched the top of Tami’s head. His face was pressed tightly into the small of her back. “Is this a dream?” Tami said. Dave pinched his face and then told her that it was not a dream.
Tami could move only one hand slightly. Dave had some faint mobility in his left fingertips and in his right hand. Stretching, he could extend his right fingers enough to touch her face, and when he did, he could feel that she was covered with snow and dirt, awash in fuel. He tried to brush the debris from his wife’s face. Tami and Dave called out to the youngsters in their group. Not a sound came back. Then a man’s voice spoke up quite close to them, saying that he could hardly breathe. Dave and Tami prayed they would be able to hold out until rescuers arrived.
Soon they became aware of a low metallic groaning that rose in pitch and then subsided. Slowly, as they associated the noises with changing pressures on their bodies, it dawned on them that it was the sound of the airplane’s fuselage. The plane was settling into the mud and snow, slowly crumpling. Upside down, the plane’s undercarriage—particularly the landing gear—exerted enormous pressure on the thin skin of the upper fuselage, which now lay on the bottom. Dave and Tami were trapped in between.
Dave’s first indication of imminent peril came when he realized a hard object was pressing against the side and back of his head with such force that, gradually, it drove his teeth into his lips. He could feel the cuts on his lips with his tongue. Pinned together by crushing forces, Dave and Tami shared a ruthless dilemma. Whenever he took a breath, his body pressed against her, making it more difficult for her to breathe. Conversely, when she took a deep breath, it increased the pressure on his head.
It was becoming almost impossible to get enough breath to speak. Dave assured Tami that they would soon be rescued. But the continuing silence made them wonder if anyone was even aware that the plane had crashed.
It got colder and colder. The fuel seemed to imbue the cold with a bone-deadening numbness, and Dave could no longer move his fingers to brush Tami’s forehead. Tami remained optimistic, telling Dave she was sure they would be all right. It was her nature, always believing in her gentle way that things would work out. For five years, Dave and Tami had shared a wonderful marriage. They knew each other well. Not much had to be said.
The crushing pressure increased steadily, though almost imperceptibly. Dave prayed that, if he must die, he be taken by fire, or that his heart would give out, before he faced the unimaginable horror of slowly having his skull crushed.
Angels in the Snow
The plane’s grotesque carcass lay silent in an eerie calm. Upside down, the main part of the fuselage was twisted and crumpled, the rear portion split open from the wings backward. The giant wheels rose high into the air. Piercing the death-like quiet came the sharp, sweet sound of a baby bawling. Through the swirling snow, lone figures moved about awkwardly, in confusion. Nearly 15 centimetres of wet snow were already on the ground, and the temperature stood at minus two degrees Celsius.
Within three minutes of the crash, snowplough operators had arrived at the scattered wreckage. They leapt from their trucks and ran, finding victims they could help. The operators were aware of the odour of fuel hanging over the scene and knew that everything could explode at any moment. They continued to search, however, stomping out small fires around the wreckage. They comforted victims, gave them their coats and led them to their warm truck cabins. Firefighters and paramedics began to arrive. Two-way radios crackled with urgency.
One plough operator, Michael Thalley, found a baby lying in the snow near the tail section, about 60 metres from the rest of the wreckage. The child was breathing, but his eyes were closed. Thalley tried to keep him warm until a fireman took him. The fireman said the baby had no chance of survival, and the snowplough operator began to sob as he went in search of other victims.
The plane lay in pieces. The cockpit cabin, the left wing and the tail cone had been severed from the rest of the plane. Rescue workers entered the main fuselage through the small, jagged opening in the rear where the tail had been sheared off. Inside the dark cabin, they found a jungle of crumpled hydraulic lines and twisted cables. Mud and snow and jet fuel were everywhere.
Passengers hung upside down, still strapped in their seats. Working forwards from the rear of the fuselage, rescuers found that the tunnel-like opening got smaller and smaller. They began digging trenches around the plane, aimed at reaching people trapped underneath. Rescuers faced the terrible frustration of locating injured people and then being unable to get close enough to treat them. Working on their bellies, rescuers cut off seats and other impediments with giant hand-powered snippers strong enough to clip off the steering column of a car. Huge amounts of snow and dirt had been scraped into the cabin as it hurtled along the ground and had to be removed before the rescuers could get through.
The storm continued into the night. Heaters the size of small cars were rushed to the scene to blow warm air into the plane. Once the heaters began to work, however, melting snow filled the trenches dug around the fuselage. As the ground heated up and softened, and the plane sank further into the earth, creating fearsome new pressures on the passengers who were trapped inside.
Kelly undid her seatbelt harness and dropped to the ‘floor’, which was actually the plane’s ceiling. She had been taught that once a crash is over, the fire is next. She had to get people out before the plane was engulfed in flames. As she wrestled with an escape hatch, however, a realization settled over her.
“It was as if someone whispered in my ear: ‘There will be no fire.’” she says. “It gave me a great, peaceful calm. There was not an earthly chance that even one of us should have escaped that crash. But now I knew we were going to save a lot of people.”
Chris helped Kelly get a dozen or so survivors out of the back of the plane. Then Kelly circled the wreckage in search of people thrown into the snow. Soon she had given away her coat and gloves. She found one older man lying in the snow, moaning, with his lower body still stuck in the plane. Kelly dropped down and hugged him and rubbed his hands, telling him to hold on. At first he was scared, but then he looked up and smiled. “We made it, didn’t we?” he said. She hugged him again and went to the next person.
When the trained rescuers began to arrive, Kelly, her black hair caked with ice, was taken to a warm bus. A fireman ran aboard with the child in his arms who had been handed to him by the snowplough operator. Kelly recognized the little boy. He had batted the oxygen mask as she gave the cabin safety demonstration.
In the Hands of God
Buried deep in the wreckage, Dave and Tami were oblivious to the frenzied activities around them. They lay melded together in darkness. The silence was broken only when one of them whispered, “I love you.” The man near them was quiet now. In his final words, he described how he was losing the strength to breathe.
Four hours passed and the plane continued to slowly settle. The pressure on Dave’s skull had become terrifying. Whenever he thought he could not stand any more, the plane would shift again, pressing him and Tami more closely together. The contradiction was diabolical, for the greatest relief he could give Tami was to hold his breath. When he mustered his strength and pushed back from Tami, it relieved the pressure on her and allowed her to breathe.
Dave thought about the eight wonderful youngsters he had brought along on this trip. Sherry Nelson was an outstanding softball player. Fun-loving and outspoken, she was also an excellent farmhand and had shrewdly saved the money she earned doing chores to buy a used pickup truck.
Sherry had not always been a top student, so her qualifying to go to the FFA convention represented an admirable personal accomplishment, and she was wildly happy to have earned the opportunity to go. Wayne Davis was fond of Sherry. He had finished high school and was farming with his family. Just a week before the trip, he’d sent Sherry a dozen roses for her 18th birthday. Janine Ledgerwood’s family had moved to Washington State, but Janine’s parents let her stay in Melba with her friend Angie Tlucek to finish high school. Janine had helped out with chores around the dairy, and had raised and exhibited hogs and beef cattle at FFA contests.
Angie, with her direct, friendly blue eyes, had top grades, was the class leader, and was known for her bedrock religious faith. She and Sherry had been friends for more than 10 years. The group also included Chris Davis—Wayne’s younger brother—Patrick Lovelady, Jeff Hoagland and Tony Noe. Their trip to Kansas City had been a tremendous success. The group scored sixth out of 39 teams in one national competition. One night at a Japanese restaurant, Sherry and Angie quietly told the waiter it was Dave Daniel’s birthday. The waiter brought out dessert with lighted candles, and the staff sang ‘Happy Birthday’ as the honoree slowly turned red. The youngsters were delighted, particularly since it wasn’t Dave’s birthday at all.
Hanging there in silence, Dave thought about the kids and their exuberance for life. Their families had entrusted their safety to him. He believed that every one of them had perished.
Patrick Lovelady and Jeff Hoagland were sitting together when the plane crashed. Patrick regained consciousness while slumped over in the snow. He was taken to the hospital and treated for various broken bones and other injuries. Jeff did not have his belt on. Catapulted from his seat, he flew through the air and landed on top of some other passengers. His injuries were minor.
Wayne Davis and Tony Noe were seated directly behind Patrick and Jeff. When the crash was over, they were still in their seats, but the whole row had been knocked loose. Their heads were on the ground, mashed into snow and dirt. Wayne called for his brother, Chris, who had been sitting on the other side of the plane. No answer came back. They managed to unfasten their seat belts and crawl out of the wreckage.
Within an hour of the crash, a boy who turned out to be Chris Davis was admitted to the hospital. His injuries were devastating: a broken ankle, gashes on his legs, seven broken ribs, two collapsed lungs. At one point his bruised heart stopped beating. Cuts covered his face. There were contusions in the brain stem, and he was in a deep coma. Doctors could not say whether he would live or die. Nor would they speculate on the damage to Chris’s brain
Frank Smoke was flipping back and forth between two football games on television. He was due to leave soon with his wife Jean to pick up their daughter, Anne Nasrallah, and their two grandsons at the Boise Air Terminal. As he changed channels, he heard something on CNN about a Continental plane crash at Denver.
“What’s Anne’s flight number?” he called to Jean. When she told him, Frank was stunned. That was the flight CNN said had crashed. He immediately called the Nasrallahs in Florida. They had not heard anything. “Turn on CNN,” Frank said. “We may be in trouble.”
Hours passed. Continental would not give any information about the crash or about survivors. Neighbours began to congregate at the Smokes’ house. Jean assumed Anne and the children were in the hospital being treated, and she would call when she could. At 10 a.m. the next day, Tony Nasrallah telephoned. He had gotten the first flight out of Jacksonville, Florida, but due to bad weather had just reached Denver.
“I think I’ve been able to identify Anne,” Tony told Frank. “She’s unconscious. I identified her by her ring.”
“What about the boys?” asked Frank.
“I don’t know yet,” said Tony. “I’ve been told they have two little boys at the morgue who are unidentified. I’m going there next.”
Jean didn’t think she would live long enough to cope with all the feelings that rushed through her mind and spirit at that moment. Tony told the person at the morgue that it was not enough for him to identify A.J. and Peter through the glass partition. He wanted to hold his sons. When the morgue official refused, Tony slammed a fist into the wall and returned to the hospital to stand vigil over Anne. Hideously injured, she lay in a coma, fighting to survive a multitude of wounds: crushed lungs, a ruptured spleen, broken bones, a crushed pelvis and massive head injuries. No one held out promise that she would survive. And if she did, doctors said the injuries to her brain might have destroyed all of her past and much of her future.
Few men have faced a more overwhelming agony than Tony Nasrallah. On this day in Denver, he took his first steps on what a friend described as a “treadmill of torment”. Again and again, in his nightmare-infested sleep, Tony awakened screaming to his lost son, “A.J., I’m coming! I’m coming!”
From the beginning, Dave Daniel suspected Tami’s situation was even worse than his own. Her breathing seemed more shallow, and she had begun to cough—a thin, faint effort from a desperate respiratory system. He suspected that Tami tried to breathe as little and as lightly as possible for his sake. Moreover, when she did speak, her message was always one of encouragement and love. Tami had grown up on a 320-hectare cattle ranch. Even as a child she had had a nurturing instinct—no creature was too small or too sick or too injured for her full attention. “She had a glow about her that made you think she had some wonderful secret,” said a friend.
In about the fourth hour, Dave noticed that Tami’s breathing became sharply laboured. He pushed back desperately, trying to give her room. He forced his fingers to move once more, rubbing them lightly across her brow. As he touched her, she struggled for a deeper breath and said, “I think I’ll take a little nap.”
“Why don’t you,” Dave said. “I’ll wake you when they get to us.”
“I love you,” Tami said. “Hang on.”
Then Dave felt her body relax. Her thin breathing ceased. He called her name and brushed her forehead. He knew that she was gone. In a cruel irony, Dave suddenly found himself breathing much easier. It made no difference to him. His wife was dead, and as far as he knew, his students had all perished also. While he was able to breathe better, still he believed that at any moment his head would be broken open by the tremendous pressure. He prayed, not for life, but for death and delivery from this torture.
Kelly Engelhart was released from the hospital a few hours after the crash. Her husband Tim drove her home through the snowstorm. As her five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter ran to her, they asked the same question that always greeted Kelly when she got home from one of her trips.
“What did you bring us, Mommy?”
“I brought you me!” Kelly said, hugging them as hard as she could.
Janine Ledgerwood and Sherry Nelson were killed instantly in the crash. Sherry was seated by the window next to Tami Daniel. Janine was seated directly in front of Tami. Angie Tlucek was across the aisle from Dave Daniel. She knew the plane was going to crash and saw a swirling orange fireball coming toward her. Angie’s memory spared her the specifics of whatever happened next. Five hours later, she awoke at the hospital. She had second-degree burns on her arms, hands, face and ankles, as well as a collapsed lung, blood clots and broken fingers.
Four boys from Melba survived the crash with no serious injuries: Wayne Davis, Pat Lovelady, Tony Noe and Jeff Hoagland. Chris Davis had a tougher experience, but, defying all predictions, he returned to the classroom full-time in February 1988 and graduated with his class. “Everybody in the school pulled together to help him,” said his mother.
Shortly after Tami slipped away, Dave Daniel thought he saw light. At first, he figured it was the beginning of the end for him; then he heard a voice above him yell, “I think we got another live one here.” Dave called back. The rescuers began working to free Dave’s legs first since they were on top.
Dave was the last person rescued. When he was finally pulled out, he had been in the wreckage for more than five hours. He had minor sprains, burns and cuts, but those injuries were nothing compared with the massive injury to his heart and spirit. He will not live long enough to forget that he was the person who put the students on Continental Airlines and told each where to sit.
Three weeks after the crash, Dave returned to his classroom. He knew this was the only way to begin his own recovery and to help the students begin theirs. The following year, he went back to the FFA convention with a group of students. “I owed it to Tami, Sherry and Janine,” says Dave. “The only way I can honour their memories is to continue those things they thought were important.”
Anne Nasrallah clung to life in the weeks following the crash. With her husband and family close at hand, she slowly emerged from the coma. Memories of her music and academic achievements were befogged. Memories of A.J. were clear. Memories of baby Peter were erased from her mind as surely as if she had never borne him. After 14 weeks of treatment in Denver, Anne returned to Florida. A shadow of her former self, she worked diligently to learn the basics of the things she once excelled at—and to recapture some of her past.
Tony remained steadfast in his caring for Anne. In turn, she treated him with a tenderness aimed at soothing a misery as great as any man has ever known. In the years that followed, Anne and Tony had two more sons, Ben and Jonathan.
In the end, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that both the pilot and co-pilot were not experienced in flying the DC-9 and that Continental’s decision to pair them was “inappropriate.” The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was “the captain’s failure to have the airplane de-iced a second time,” and that a contributing factor was “the absence of regulatory or management controls governing operations by newly qualified flight-crew members.”
Continental Airlines continued to defend Zvonek and Bruecher as fully qualified pilots and maintained that it did not know what caused the crash. The NTSB experts had little to say about the fireball that swept through the cabin. “The snow and dirt that entered the cabin during the impact sequence may have prevented the fireball from igniting anything in the cabin,” concluded the crash investigation report. “The moderate snowfall and cold temperature mitigated fuel vaporization and further prevented a sustained post-crash fire.”
Kelly Engelhart didn’t dispute these scientific findings. However, she could not discount her years of training about what it means when fire is present with fuel. “I believe with all my heart that God just reached in and snuffed out that fire. Fifty-four people are alive today because there was no fire. Our being alive is one of God’s miracles, pure and simple.”
Editor's Note: 100 years of Reader’s Digest
Henry Hurt, who was an editor-at-large with Reader’s Digest for decades, starting in 1971, reported on everything from espionage to natural disasters. But his favourite subjects were the poignant stories of people whose spirit shone through in circumstances that seemed hopeless. Here is one such iconic story, which originally appeared in the February 1990 issue of Reader’s Digest.