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Jet Crash Lingers in Memory : Survivor Recalls Horror of Disaster That Killed 582

March 27, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET

She has often wondered why she and her husband escaped death while so many others perished in the crash.

Ten years ago today, Floy Olson of Laguna Hills Leisure World was one of 68 people to survive the worst airplane disaster in aviation history, a two-plane collision that killed 582 people in the Canary Islands.

Olson, a retired junior high school teacher, was aboard a Pan American jet when a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jet slammed into it at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Thirty-nine other Leisure World residents were also on the Pan American jet; 10 survived.

Now 80, Olson still has vivid memories of the horror when the two Boeing 747 jumbo jets collided but says she isn't haunted by it.

She and her first husband, Paul Heck, who also survived the crash but died of a heart attack in 1981, never "had a single nightmare, and I haven't had one to this day," Olson said.

She believes that Heck's quick reaction to the accident saved her: "I was in shock, and I would have perished if it hadn't been for my husband. I heard a woman shout, 'We've been bombed!' That's what I thought, and I thought I was dying. I heard my husband shout, 'Floy, unfasten your seat belt. Let's get out!' "

The airplane crash, which occurred on a runway at the Tenerife airport, was the result of bad weather, unusually heavy air traffic and misunderstood instructions.

Olson's plane, like many others that were supposed to land at nearby Las Palmas Airport, had been rerouted to Tenerife because of a bomb explosion at the Las Palmas facility.

After waiting at Tenerife three hours, Olson's flight was finally cleared to fly to Las Palmas. There the plane's passengers were to embark on a 12-day Mediterranean luxury cruise.

According to reports at the time, the Pan American plane was taxiing out through rain and fog when the KLM jet, apparently misunderstanding instructions from the tower, began racing down the runway for takeoff and hurtled into the Pan American jet.

Collision and Fires

In the collision and the fires that followed, all 225 passengers and crew aboard the KLM flight died, as did most of those on the Pan American plane.

"We did pray about our trip and safety, and I think God did say, 'there's some work for you yet,' " Olson said.

Six of the Leisure World survivors--Herbert and Lura Waldrip, Mario Tyzbir, Byron and Grace Ellerbrock and Olson--still live there. Former travel agent Jean Brown has left the retirement community. Harold and Grace McGowan, like Paul Heck, later died of other causes.

Two of the Hecks' closest friends, Lorraine and Karl Larson, died in the disaster. When the crash occurred, Lorraine, who had been seated next to Floy, "was sitting there like a zombie" with her mouth open, Olson remembers.

"If only I could have said, 'Lorraine, come on, get out of here,' " Olson said sorrowfully, but "I know I was in shock. . . . I never answered my husband" when he called to her to follow him.

"One of the common sights were the columns of shimmering flame, just perfect columns from ceiling to floor," Olson said. A piece of burning debris hurtled toward her head as she stood up to follow Heck, she added, and in batting it away, she burned her hand.

"I felt as though a heavenly umbrella was over my head, because nothing touched me. I wasn't burned (otherwise) at all," she said. Her husband, however, was severely burned as he pushed aside debris to clear a path to let them reach an open emergency door near one of the wings.

Jumped Two Stories

"So we both got through onto the wing, and I watched my husband run to the tip of the wing, the highest point, and when he jumped it was two stories down," Olson said. "But a little voice said to me, 'That's not for you, Floy,' " and she jumped to the ground from a perch close to the plane's body.

In the fall, her head struck the wing and she lost consciousness for a few moments. When she came to and got to her feet to run, she discovered her right leg was useless.

That was when she started praying, Olson said. She crawled away from the wreck before the explosions, caused by burning fuel, began. She looked back twice and realized that she would have been cremated if she had stayed near the plane, she said.

She wasn't afraid during the escape, Olson said. "I've often wondered why. I didn't have fear, and I can't explain it because I'm a very emotional person. I'm emotional at a wedding, I'm emotional at a funeral, I'm emotional at a sad movie, and yet I haven't been emotional about this. I just knew I had to keep going" to get away from the crash site.

Taken by emergency workers to a Tenerife hospital, Olson did not find out until midnight that her husband was alive in another hospital.

Government Plane

The Hecks were transported back to the United States on a government plane three days after the accident. "He was on one stretcher, and I was on another," Olson said. They were not able to really talk until they reached California, she said. Heck was immediately hospitalized at the UCI Burn Center.

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