Families of Flight 255 victims wait 26 years to hear sole survivor speak

May 17, 2013

This summer will mark 26 years since Northwest Flight 255 crashed onto the highway outside Detroit Metro Airport.

One hundred fifty-seven people were killed. The wreckage stretched across half a mile.

Only one person survived: a four-year-old girl with brown eyes, a chipped tooth, and purple nail polish.

Her name is Cecelia Cichan, and this week, she’s breaking her long public silence about the crash.

She’s speaking about her experience in the new documentary, “Sole Survivor.”

First responders and family members of Flight 255 victims attended a special screenings of the movie in Metro Detroit.

On a warm spring night, dozens of people lined up outside a Royal Oak theater.

Shirley Friedman rests on a bench while she digs around her purse for a photograph of her granddaughter.

“This is Joanne. She was in the crash,” she says, showing a picture of young woman with big ‘80s curls in a high school graduation cap and gown.

Friedman herself has a shock of white hair and trembling hands.  She says she’s not sure exactly what she’s hoping to hear from Cecelia Cichan.

In part because she’s still shocked that Cichan is speaking publicly.

“I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to think. Everybody told me, come today! Because it was so touching to know that somebody survived. I wish more of them had.”  

There’s a name for Friedman and other relatives of Flight 255 victims.

They call themselves the “Flight 255 family.” Twenty-five times now, they’ve gathered at a memorial near the crash site off the expressway.

“We go every year,” says Friedman. “We take our chairs, our cushions, and the whole gang goes, everbody.”

The director of the documentary, Ky Dickens, has traveled from Chicago to be at this screening.

She says for more than a year now, word’s been getting out about her interviews with Cichan.

The calls and emails are pretty constant: How is Cecelia? Is she happy? Will you tell her we think of her?

"Her living keeps their loved one living on,” says Dickens.  

“She's the last connection for them. And I think that puts a lot of pressure on Cecelia, I can only imagine! However, I hope that when people see the survivors that there's an element of healing that can come with it."

And then, the film starts.

Cichan's face fills the big screen, and she looks good. Sitting down and speaking directly at the camera, she’s poised and calm.

"I'm happily married to my high school sweetheart,” she says.

“I'm studying to get my masters in art therapy. I...am happy! I've just never been happier."

Cichan talks about the tattoo on her wrist. It’s an airplane.  It’s the one scar on her body that she got to control, she says.

And then, it’s like she’s speaking to this specific audience. She says despite her preference for privacy, she does feel like a member of the Flight 255 family.  

"I do think about you guys, and what you must have gone through." 

There’s another scene in front of the Flight 255 memorial plaque near Detroit.

A grandmotherly woman describes the family she lost in the crash. And one time, she says she bumped into Cichan by total accident.

"I cried like a little baby,” the woman says.

“Because to me, there was part of this whole episode that was missing. It's her. And when I met her, it put that little piece of the puzzle in place."

When the movie ends and the lights come up, Shirley Friedman says this film brought everything back.

"How said it was that all these people are gone. People who should really still be here. But what can you do? You only can make the best of it."

There is one person who has been in Cichan’s life all of these years.

John Thiede is the firefighter who carried her out of the crash wreckage almost 26 years ago.

He and Cichan talk regularly. They danced at her wedding reception. The night before the screening, Thiede says, he and Cichan were texting for hours.

A trim, energetic guy who’s still an active firefighter, Thiede says now that the woman he thinks of as a “little sister” is speaking to the public, victim’s families might feel some new peace.

“I think there’s still a healing process with the families. And finally after being gone so long, and nobody knowing what happened to her, I think family members finally [have] closure to it.”

You can see the documentary yourself. It’s set to play in film festivals and have a wider release later this year.