35 years ago, Detroit flight claimed lives of former Northeast Michigan residents

Courtesy Photo Former Northeast Michigan residents Doug and Nel Thompson, both of whom perished on Northwest Flight 255, are seen in this undated photo provided by their daughter, Susie Thompson.

ROMULUS — On Sunday, Aug. 16, 1987, earlier in the day, Northwest Flight 750 completed a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, with a stopover at the Saginaw airport.

The aircraft then continued on to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

That evening, the aircraft, now known as Flight 255, would continue on to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport, with a final leg to John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County.

The twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft was introduced to the aviation industry in October 1979. The MD-80 was a reconfiguration of the DC-9. The aircraft was designed for short hauls and could accommodate 130 to 172 passengers.

The aircraft entered Northwest’s use in 1981.

Courtesy Photo Former Alpena resident Susie Thompson, daughter of Doug and Nel Thompson, points to her parents’ names on a granite monument on a knoll at the Middlebelt Road/I-94 interchange.

On board Flight 255 were a crew of six and 149 passengers. Two of those passengers, Doug and Nel Thompson, were originally from Northeast Michigan. He was 63 and she was 57. Together, they had eight children.

He was employed by General Telephone and Electronics. His career spanned first as a Harrisville and Upper Peninsula lineman and, later, into Alpena-based GTE regional management.

The Thompsons were enroute to Phoenix, where he owned Western Wiring, a utility installation and support company.

The doors were secured and a pushback tug backed Flight 255 from the jetway at 8:34 p.m. The aircraft’s manifest total weight was 144,046 pounds. The maximum allowed for liftoff was 146,058 pounds.

The ground control tower directed the 57-year-old captain, John Maus, and first officer, 35-year-old David Dodds, to taxi to runway 3C. Other runways were being assigned for departing flights.

Runway 3C was, at that time, DTW’s shortest runway.

The captain and first officer proceeded to the runway and missed an entry turn. The flight deck again contacted the control tower for runway 3C directions, which were given. The captain and first officer were assigned a new control tower radio frequency and flight controller.

A slight rain drizzle was beginning.

At 8:44 p.m., Flight 255 began its roll to liftoff runway 3C. Its speed was projected to be at 200 mph.

Slightly after 8:45 p.m., the tower picked up distraught cockpit voices, alarms, and subsequent multiple aircraft impact sounds.

Immediately, control tower records show, an announcement was given to all outbound and inbound flights: “Close the airport down. There has been a crash.”

That evening, daughter Susie Thompson was working at the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office as a dispatcher.

Her coworkers, a sheriff lieutenant and a sergeant, were listening to an aircraft crash breaking news account in a nearby room. The news was preliminary and fragmented. They informed Thompson of what they heard.

The officers reached out to their Wayne County police counterparts and were able to learn the flight number and its destination. They shared that information with Thompson.

She burst out, “My God, this is my parent’s flight.”

With the assistance of coworkers, Thompson and her sister were quickly driven to DTW, where, for the better part of 10 days, they stayed at a nearby hotel. Daily, they received updates and attended news conferences. During the passenger and crew identification process, they were tasked to locate medical and dental records. At that time, DNA identification was not fully sophisticated.

Thompson shared that a challenging moment was when she, her sister, and other passenger family members were escorted to a large Northwest flight hanger. Once there, they wandered through a maze of tables ladened with personal effects.

They were able to identify her father’s wedding ring and stepmother’s luggage.

Thompson saw at the end of the hanger a large opening separated by hanging plastic strips. She could see body bags were being brought into that area. She asked for the opportunity to identify her father’s remains.

She was advised by an attendant, “You really don’t want to do this.”

She heeded the advice.

A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined the crash occurred because of cockpit personnel neglect and error. In particular, not utilizing a full taxi checklist and correct flap and slat placement.

The flight black box, personal accounts, and other resources showed that, immediately after liftoff, Flight 255 listed a full 90 degrees to the left, clipped multiple light poles, and struck the roof of an Avis car rental building. The aircraft plowed into the roadway, caught fire, and disintegrated onto Middlebelt Road, just before the I-94 interchange.

The crash claimed 154 lives, the worst commercial aircraft crash in Michigan’s history. In addition, two individuals perished on the ground and roadway.

And, to date, the crash is recognized as the seventh-most tragic airliner crash in the U.S.

When public safety and rescue personnel arrived at the Flight 255 crash site, a news account said, Andy Graves of the Huron Valley Ambulance Service came to rescue lives. He later stated, “There was nobody to save.”

But there was a glimmer of hope.

Romulus firefighter John Thiede arrived in his fire engine with his partner. They began to hose down the burning debris. Suddenly, they heard a faint voice. Rushing with a bright flashlight to the sound, they pushed aside mounds of wreckage and found 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan strapped upside down in her car seat attached to an airliner seat. Her parents and older brother perished.

Cichan was rushed to Ann Arbor’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where she received months of care for her burns and fractures.

She never spoke publicly about this crash until she appeared on the television production of “Sole Survivor” nearly 25 years later.

Thompson last attended a Northwest Flight 255 memorial on the 30th anniversary.

There are three memorials across the country reflecting on the tragic crash.

A granite memorial listing the event and all the names is on a knoll surrounded by evergreens near the Middlebelt Road and I-94 interchange. A second monument is located in Phoenix, Arizona, adjacent to the city hall. Finally, a marker is placed at General Motors Milford Proving Ground in memory of the 14 GM employees who perished.

Lawsuits followed and were settled primarily against Northwest Airlines and McDonnell Douglas corporation.

Northwest Airlines and its new owner, Delta Airlines, no longer utilize a Flight 255 identification.

Decades later, ambulance driver Graves, along with Mindi Odom, wrote a tribute to flight 255 entitled, “August Rain.” The song can be found on YouTube.

In addition, Hank Winchester, of Detroit’s WDIV-TV-4, offers a 12-minute news segment on Flight 255. This documentary can also be found on YouTube.

Jeffrey D. Brasie is retired health care CEO and frequently writes op-eds and feature stories. He is a former Alpena resident and resides in suburban Detroit. His late father, Harold D. Brasie, was also a General Telephone and Electronics Alpena manager.


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