Life: Still surviving the crash of Flight 603 | plane crash, LAX crash, tom kaiser, jim mcjannet - OCRegister.comI saw this in todays OC register. Click the link for the web page and the pics.
Still surviving Flight 603 crash
30 years ago, Tom Kaiser was first to reach downed DC-10. Could he save 200 on board?
By TOM BERG
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The sound jolted Tom Kaiser from his Bible study.
Boom, boom, like that; like someone firing a cannon.
It was always loud here in Fire Station 80 North – a concrete outpost next to the north runway of Los Angeles International Airport. But this was different.
Firefighters Kaiser and Jim McJannet had pulled airport duty on this drizzly morning of March 1, 1978 - 30 years ago this week. They'd relieved the last crew at 7:15 a.m. and were waiting for a mechanic to arrive with a new master brake cylinder for their truck.
LAX was the third busiest airport in the world, but on an average day, you still might see a jackrabbit (a deaf jackrabbit, the men joked). Or stand by for a fuel spill. Or simply listen to the roar of jets all day.
McJannet had been reading the paper when he heard the unmistakable sound: "Blowout," he said. "Let's go."
The men raced outside to see a departing Continental DC-10 barreling down Runway 6R at more than 150 mph.
"The tires had blown off and it was just metal on the left side of the aircraft," Kaiser recalled this week, thumbing through an album of newspaper clippings and photos. "The magnesium wheels caused lots of sparks and fire."
When the jet ground to a halt, 664 feet past the runway, a plume of fire shot 100 feet into the air. Jet fuel gushed from the left wing, which had started to separate. Black smoke enveloped the plane.
"My God," thought Kaiser. "How many passengers are going to get out?"
There was no time to pull on boots or flame-retardant suits. Every second mattered.
He and McJannet had about 300 seconds to rescue 200 people trapped inside – sitting on 21,000 gallons of fuel and surrounded by fire.
The clock was ticking.
GOING TO EXPLODE
This was her very first airplane ride.
Gina Draker, 13, took the window seat just behind the left wing. Her mom and dad dropped into seats beside her. Gina had been excited – they were flying to Honolulu for her sister's wedding – until boarding. Then she got nervous.
It helped when the family held hands to pray for a safe trip. But they hadn't even let go when orange flames flashed by her window.
It looked like a fireball, she recalls – "bouncing and spinning past in this bright blaze."
Flight 603 had just blown three of the four tires on its left landing gear.
In the cockpit, Capt. Eugene Hersche, piloting his last flight before retirement, screamed, "Abort!" He locked the brakes and reversed engine thrust. The 215-ton jet lurched and rumbled, as if bouncing over cobblestones.
Wheel pieces went flying. The left landing gear collapsed. The left wing flopped to the ground and its fuel tank ruptured as the plane scraped to a fiery stop.
Inside was sheer panic. Screaming. Pandemonium. The crowd pinned one steward so tightly against an exit door, he couldn't open it. They pinned Gina's mom, Genie, against a seat where she had fallen, one shoe on, one shoe off.
"I kept telling my mom to get up and come with me," recalls Gina, now 43 and a sculptor. "She told me to just, 'Go! Go on!' It was horrible."
Meanwhile, black smoke started curling through left-side exit doors, and flames were licking in.
Bill Draker, who'd served in the Marines, lifted his wife and daughter onto seats and told them to crawl to the nearest exit.
When they finally made it, his wife Genie recalls, "I went down that chute, but I just couldn't think of anything beyond, 'That plane is going to explode.'"
If it did, it would take the life of her husband – who stayed behind to help.
JUMPING OUT DOORS
It took Kaiser and McJannet 90 seconds to arrive.
They dodged debris all the way – an engine part here, a wing flap there, metal scraps and tire shreds.
"We came right up here," Kaiser says, pointing to the left side of a charred fuselage in an old photo. "It was smoking like crazy. You'd see flashes and hear fuel cells exploding."
The heat was intense, even in their cab. A steady stream of jet fuel fed the fire. Every exit chute on this side burned on opening. If people on Flight 603 were going to escape, they'd have to climb out the other side. Kaiser wheeled his rig around.
His nearest help was still a half mile from the airport – three trucks led by Capt. Bob Engel, a veteran firefighter of 32 years.
Engel saw the loom-up – fire and smoke shooting 200 feet into the air and knew, "This is it!" This was the big one.
"I was afraid we could have 100 or 150 fatalities," recalls Engel, now 85 of Westchester, who was in charge that morning.
He called for backup: more fire companies, trucks, men, ambulances, everything you got.
"When I rolled in," he says, "people were jumping out the tail door. The chute had been destroyed. People were burning, their clothes were on fire."
One couple had burned to death, and jet fuel was now pooling ankle-deep in places. If Gina's dad was to get out, he'd need two men – Kaiser and McJannet – to keep the right-side exits free from fire a few seconds more.
The fire was spreading under the whole fuselage.
McJannet kept spraying foam on the hot spots, but there were too many.
"You could see several people on fire," says Kaiser. "They got splattered with fuel when they jumped out. The foam can only hold so much."
People were running. Some sat near flare-ups, dazed and injured. Others crawled along the right wing, dropping from its rear flap. An older woman wandered under the plane and caught fire.
"I remember her cries of help – 'Help me!'" recalls young passenger Gina Draker. "That vision and those sounds still haunt me."
McJannet finally got the top and belly of the plane covered in foam. The fire held. And one by one, the passengers emerged: sliding, leaping, eventually climbing down a ladder at the rear door.
Among the last out was Bill Draker, who'd helped several older passengers escape. By now, his exit chute near the front had burned and tattered.
"Go," Draker said to another man, also helping.
"You first," the man replied.
With that, they jumped and landed in a heap.
In all, two died at the scene, two died later, and 29 were seriously hurt. The other 167 survived with minor or no injuries, thanks in part to a new technique – the use of foam, also called "light water," which passed it first major test at LAX that day.
And thanks to the quick action of Kaiser and McJannet.
"They knocked down the fire for people coming out," says Engel. "They probably saved 40 or 50 lives."
It's been 30 years, but the memories are fresh, triggered by an old front-page photo.
For those on board Flight 603, it's a reminder of death and how close they came.
"It's still quite emotional," says passenger Gina Draker. "I hate that picture. It brings me back. It makes me remember."
For those called to help, it's a reminder of life and how many they helped save.
"It means a lot to me," says Kaiser. "I just happened to be at the station that morning. But I'll never forget it. It's vivid in my mind. Something like this only happens once in a lifetime."
That's the difference about 300 seconds can make.