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Detroit Crash Inquiry Centers on Jet's Engines : Badly Burned Girl, 4, Is Identified; Believed to Be Only Survivor

August 18, 1987|LARRY GREEN | Times Staff Writer

ROMULUS, Mich. — Yellow sheets, like confetti thrown helter-skelter, lay Monday along the scorched, nearly mile-long path of destruction left by Sunday night's crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 as it attempted to take off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

They covered bodies and parts of bodies--most burned beyond recognition--of as many as 156 people who died in the second-worst single plane crash in U.S. history.

Authorities said they believed that everybody aboard except the sole survivor, a badly burned 4-year-old girl, had died instantly.

Cecilia Cichan was identified Monday by her grandfather, officials said. She was listed in critical condition at C. S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, said hospital spokesman Mike Harrison.

The child was found by paramedics crying under the body of an older woman, perhaps her mother.

"Her survival was due to being padded by her mother, at least we assume it was her mother," Pam Davidson, a paramedic who was present when the child was found, told the Associated Press. "There was debris everywhere, and there was no way to determine if the wreckage was part of the plane or another vehicle."

Tony Cichan, 59, and two men described as the girl's uncles went to Cecilia's bedside Monday night after flying to Detroit, hospital spokeswoman Catherine Cureton said.

"They were just certain on sight as they looked at her" that the unconscious girl, her head bandaged and breathing with the aid of a respirator, was Cecilia, Cureton said.

The girl suffered third-degree burns over 30% of her body, along with a broken leg and collarbone, Harrison said.

Notified by Northwest

Northwest Airlines notified Cichan and his wife, Margaret, of Maple Glen, Pa., that their son, daughter-in-law and grandson had died aboard the plane, Mrs. Cichan told the Associated Press earlier Monday. When there was no mention of the girl, they described her to authorities and learned that she was in the hospital.

But other questions remain unanswered. "People keep asking 'why?' " said the Rev. Larry Sharpless, a Detroit police chaplain who was comforting families of victims at the airport. "There is anger and rage, and there are tears."

A small army of investigators swarmed over the burned stretch of Middlebelt Road, the highway where the plane skidded northbound like a fiery rocket, overtaking cars in northbound lanes of traffic.

"It's the most gruesome sight . . . " said David Groat, a lieutenant colonel in the Michigan Civil Air Patrol.

It appeared that the twin-engine MD-80 never climbed more than 40 feet above the ground before crashing in a mushroom of fire.

Evidence at the scene indicates that the plane, a version of the popular DC-9, barely cleared a National Car Rental office a short distance beyond the runway, dipping to the left, then the right, then the left. The plane hit the top of a 40-foot-tall light pole in the National parking lot.

Then, fire reportedly flashing from its left engine, the plane continued for a few hundred feet before striking the Avis Car Rental office in the northeast corner of the airport complex, ripping a jagged chunk from the building and setting dozens of parked cars on fire.

From the abandoned tower of the airport's old air control center, the path of the jet along the ground was clearly visible--a fire-blackened streak where grass and shrubbery once lined highway embankments.

The jet hit the ground at a busy intersection, about 100 yards west of eight large storage tanks filled with airplane fuel.

There are six-inch-deep gouges in the intersection pavement, the burned hulk of a truck, a charred body. As the plane skidded down Middlebelt Road, it slid under a railroad overcrossing and two I-94 overpasses, blasting cars out of its flaming path.

State police said that I-94 would remain closed for several days while the accident was under investigation.

At least six people on the ground were treated for injuries.

Wreckage of Vehicle

Almost a mile from where the plane began skidding lay the last bit of wreckage, a twisted, melted four-wheel-drive vehicle that the airliner struck from behind.

"There was fire all along the highway," said Delilah Shultz, 17, who lives near the airport. "The whole house shook. The plane exploded twice after it hit. The whole road was nothing but flames. I heard a lady scream, 'Somebody help us. Somebody help us.' She was on the highway overpass. Then she stopped screaming."

Families of the victims gathered at two airport hotels where they were secluded in their shared grief.

Not far away, ambulances, one after the other, pulled up to a hangar, now a temporary morgue with the remains of victims. At the airport, flags of the United States, the State of Michigan and Wayne County flew at half-staff.

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