Editor’s note: This is part two of an item that began last Saturday with Diane Mack’s column headlined “The enduring pain of a tragedy.”
All 127 passengers and five crew members of USAir Flight 427 died when their plane suddenly nosedived at 7:03 p.m., on September 8, 1994, during its approach to Pittsburgh International Airport.
My Amtrak station friend – I will identify her as Jan – lost her husband on Flight 427.
One family of five – the Weaver family, mom, dad, and three kids – were returning from a family funeral and also died on Flight 427.
I loved when Jan told me her story about the families’ first NTSB hearing,at the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel. Jan stated that they weren't allowed to testify, but they made their presence felt.
Whenever the hearings broke for recess, each of the attendees left an 8-by-10-inch photo of their lost loved ones standing on the chair for the NTSB members to see when they returned.
That same evening, Jan recalled, they went up and down floors in the elevators during the wee hours, and finally agreed on three demands which they presented to the NTSB and the media:
• Identify the cause of the crash.
• Advocate for improved safety throughout the airline industry.
• Guarantee that trained professional caregivers would be among those responding to the needs of the victims and their families in future disasters.
The crash on Sept. 8, 1994 occurred at 7:03 p.m. Eastern time. Jan didn't get a call from USAir until 4:30 a.m.. to confirm that her husband was on the plane.
Byron Acohido reported the story for the Seattle Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of aviation safety. He is now with USA Today.
Lester Holt broke out of his role as a local Chicago newscaster to do a special on airline disasters, which gave him national exposure. He is now the anchor of NBC's Nightly News.
The media paid attention.
There had never been an organized response quite like theirs.
James Hall, chair of the NTSB at the time, encouraged the group's efforts, telling them not to give up.
"This group," he told them, "has something special."
Including Flight 427, USAir had suffered five crashes from 1989 to 1994.
Jan stated, "It was no accident."
The crash occurred because the NTSB finally diagnosed a flaw in the 737 design.
"It had everything to do with the plane's hydraulics."
Faulty rudder operation, along with the altitude and temperature, had caused the crash.
The cockpit recorder recovered from Flight 427 clearly showed the pilots had no idea what was causing their sudden plunge. Their expletives came through on the recording loud and clear.
The NTSB gave the FAA five years to have every 737 retrofitted with a backup hydraulic system.
Boeing immediately incorporated the change in its new planes.
"Someone somewhere knew that they had better back up their hydraulic systems because Southwest had already done that on their planes, “Jan said.
In January of 1995, they sent a letter to President Bill Clinton.
"We propose that a family advocate be named as an integral component of future disaster investigation teams. This family advocate would be empowered by a single, respected entity such as the NTSB, the FAA, or the Secretary of Transportation and would have legal authority to address the communication, support and services needs of the families of the disaster."
On Oct. 9, 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. President Clinton invited the members of the 427 Disaster Family Support League to the bill's signing.
"Something good came out of all this," Jan says today.
Over time, the family support group became Jan’s second family. Each year on the anniversary, they come together.
The widows became fast friends and would go out to dinner together.
The families pooled their money and purchased the crash site from the farmer who owned the land. When they gathered in April of 2000 to dedicate the monument, she recalled, pieces of luggage and clothing debris were still occasionally found in the trees nearby.
At their final memorial service on Sept. 8, 2014, the 20th anniversary, Jan was looking around the room and made eye contact with someone who looked familiar.
"He was the fireman on TV," she said. "I walked over to him and said, 'I had no idea what you first responders went through, finding pieces of bodies, everywhere.’“
Jan continued, “I was focused on myself and my loss. I am so sorry for not paying attention to what was happening with all of you.'"
He was having none of that.
"Don't say you're sorry," he said. "You are my hope. Because you survived, I survived. Each year when this group gets together, I healed."
How I wish I could share everything in the book, “The Mystery of Flight 427”.
Were there blessings?
Yes, today, eternal friends, improved planes, new laws, better protection, healing, tender mercies from heaven, and hope.
Diane Mack is coordinator of Putting Families First, Jackson County's Family Week Foundation. Email her at Director@jacksoncountyfamilyweek.org.