Thirty years ago today, a flight outbound from Detroit Metro Airport on its way to Phoenix never reached its destination.
Moments after takeoff, Northwest Flight 255 stalled and crashed onto Middlebelt Road.
The only survivor was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan. Two motorists on Middlebelt Road were also killed. In total, 156 people lost their lives.
National network reporters told the nation about the disaster, but many Michigan journalists were also on the scene after news of the crash broke. Roger Martin was a Detroit News reporter who was one of the first journalists on the scene, and Michigan’s Radio’s Rick Pluta was there as a reporter for United Press International.
Martin said he was in bed reading after watching a Detroit Tiger’s game when he got a call from the Detroit News city desk. He heard about the crash and was off to the airport.
Trying to get to the crash, both reporters recalled traffic on I-94 being at a standstill.
“I pulled onto the shoulder and drove until I got to a Wayne County Sheriff’s Deputy who was … really just stopping [traffic].” Pluta said. “The sheriff’s deputy told me he was driving on 94 when he saw the fireball in the sky.”
Pluta recalls getting to the scene of the crash, where the plane had crashed into the bridge over Middlebelt Road. He says he couldn’t see any human bodies, just pieces of smoldering sheet metal.
The NTSB eventually determined several factors that probably contributed to the crash. Martin says pilot error was definitely a factor, and a warning alert that was supposed to go off didn’t, likely because of a failed breaker.
Martin says the plane was still ascending when it clipped a light post at a rental car agency near the airport, and Pluta says the left wing of the McDonnall Douglass MD-80 also hit the roof of the rental car agency. The plane tilted back and forth in the air before it crashed.
“Can you imagine a plane at take-off literally yawing back-and-forth from 15 to 90 degrees,” Martin said. “Going at like 500 miles an hour.”
Pluta said originally it was thought that Cecilla Cichan’s mother may have shielded the four-year-old from the effects of the crash and saved her life, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“In fact, her family was near her but not on her, and so it seems as if her life was actually saved by a stranger,” Pluta said.
Listen, above, to Stateside’s entire conversation with Rick Pluta, Michigan Radio’s Lansing Bureau Chief, and Roger Martin, now a partner at Martin Waymire, a Lansing-based public relations firm.