In August 1987, a local teen critically injured in a fatal car accident in Alpena County was transported to the University of Michigan Hospital where he lay in a bed next to a four-year-old girl who was grabbing headlines around the globe. Although he never had a chance to meet the girl because of his serious condition, their families and stories will be linked forever.
Bert Herriman, who was 16 years old and in an induced coma after the accident in Alpena, was in the Ann Arbor hospital when one of the most horrific disasters in U.S. aviation history occurred on Aug. 16, 1987 - the crash of Northwest Airlines flight #255. The plane crash in Romulus claimed the lives of 154 on board and an additional two on the ground. Only one young girl, Cecelia Cichan, survived. She would become the symbol of light in the crash's wake and also a roommate of Herriman's at the hospital as each struggled for their lives.
Herriman's mother, Barb Beebe, said the families of all the children in the ward were experiencing the same emotions and would console one another while waiting. She said she got to know several of Cichan's relatives at the hospital, including her grandfather, who she became close to. After news of the plane crash broke, she said the entire hospital prepared for a flood of seriously injured people. As time passed it became apparent there may not be any survivors, until an unidentified girl was admitted.
News Photo by Steve Schulwitz
Transferred to the University of Michigan Hospital after a fatal car accident in August 1987, Bert Herriman shared a room with Cecelia Cichan — the sole survivor of Northwest Airlines flight #255, which crashed shortly after take-off in Romulus. The girl’s survival became a leading news story in the United States, and gifts flooded the hospital. Cichan’s grandfather gave Herriman a pair of balloons that he signed on behalf of his granddaughter urging him to get well.
"The ward expected a lot of children from the crash, and we waited and waited and waited and it was only her, the sole survivor," Beebe said. "We were waiting on pins and needles to see who she was and who she belonged to. It took a few days, and then her grandfather and other family arrived and identified her. I spent one special time with him after the purse of Cecelia's mother had been retrieved from the crash site and given to him. We were in a private area, and he was going through it looking at the belongings. It was very emotional, but it brought us closer together, and he was the one who gave Bert the balloons from Cecelia."
Herriman was given a pair of balloons that Cichan's grandfather had signed on behalf of his granddaughter. They read "To Bert, automobile crash survivor, from Cecelia, plane crash survivor- August 1987." Beebe has held onto the balloons for the 25 years since the accidents, and they are a special reminder of the support she received from all of the children's families at the hospital.
Beebe said Cichan received gifts and well wishes from all over the world. Herriman said he also received a tremendous amount of support from the people within the Alpena community.
"I was told that while I was at the hospital in Alpena there were more than 100 people in the parking lot waiting to find out how I was," Herriman said. "Once I was transferred, all of my friends, family, classmates and people I didn't even know were sending me cards, flowers and prayers. I believe it was the prayers that helped me get through, and I'm sure that is what helped Cecelia get through too."
Herriman said even though he and Cichan had survived their accidents, there was also a great amount of loss. He said he lost one of his best friends in the Alpena crash, while Cichan lost her parents and her brother. Herriman said his survival has made him a more spiritual person and more appreciative of those who care about him.
"The good Lord was looking down on the both of us. It is amazing we survived, but yet how sad is it that there were other losses of life that don't get recognized," he said. "Surviving does make you appreciate life more, and you understand you can be gone in a blink of an eye, but there were loved ones who died for both Cecelia and I. I consider the fact we survived miracles, and I really learned just how many people love me, and I appreciate them maybe more now than I did before the accident."
Beebe has thought of the girl and her family, as well as the other families at the hospital during that summer in 1987. She said there were about seven people in the ward and only Herriman, another boy and Cichan survived. She said over the last quarter century she has often wondered how the girl was doing and hoped she would be able to either return the balloons, or tell her about the gracious gift her grandfather gave her son and the support her family provided her.
"I have prayed that at some point there would be a way I could share with her what her grandfather had given Bert and done for us," Beebe said. "I have thought about her and all of the people for all of these years and I'm sure they have thought about us. We were all in the same situation and became really close and had a connection. We each knew that at any given moment we could have a child taken away from us. It was always heartbreaking when parents would have to go in the room and basically say goodbye to their child. It was very hard."
Family members of the victims held a memorial Thursday night at the crash site in Romulus. It was only just this week that Cichan, who is now married, stepped forward to share her memories with the media. Herriman, who enjoys fishing, hunting and now has a child of his own, said he understands why she would choose to stay out of the limelight.
"It is difficult to talk about. I have held all of my pain inside and still do to this day," Herriman said. "It takes awhile to come to grips and accept how fragile life is, and you can never escape the pain. I think we both had good support groups around us, and that has made it possible to come through this."
Herriman said because he was in and out of consciousness for much of the time Cichan was in the room, he only has vague memories of her. He said he does think about her, as well as his best friend who was lost in the car crash, quite often.
"I talk about her with my mom and wonder what happened to little Cecelia," Herriman said. "I wondered where she went, who raised her, and I believe that's one of the reasons my mom has kept the balloons for so long, because her and her story had touched our lives."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.