Joanne Surowitz awoke last Sunday morning in a Detroit suburb, anticipating that by day's end she would be reunited with her family in their new Tustin home. The family had moved west earlier in the year, but Joanne stayed in Michigan to finish her senior year of high school and to spend time with her boyfriend.
She was booked on a Continental flight from Detroit. At the airport she was told the plane had developed mechanical problems, so she went to Northwest Airlines--and got one of the last open seats on Flight 255.
In Toledo, Ohio, a week ago today, Hidi Ratliff was eager to get home to Santa Ana and begin cheerleading practice. Two weeks visiting her father and other relatives had been enough. When she finished packing, she called home to confirm that her mother would be waiting at John Wayne Airport when Northwest Flight 255 landed at 10:35 p.m.
Also boarding the Northwest jet at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport was a Laguna Hills couple on the last leg of a two-week trip back to New York. There was a Fountain Valley nurse, returning early from a family vacation and a Saddleback College football player flying back for the start of practice. And there was a Laguna Niguel businessman, ending a long weekend of partying with his sister in Detroit, heading back to work.
The Plane Was Packed
Those from Orange County on the flight generally mirrored the overall passenger list. It was a Sunday night crowd in August--casually dressed vacationers, family travelers, not as many business people as would have been on a midweek flight. And the plane was packed.
It pulled away from the terminal into the muggy Michigan twilight nearly on schedule. But 2,500 miles away, friends and family gathered a few hours later in the fluorescent glow of John Wayne Airport to greet a plane that would never arrive.
They knew little of what had happened beyond what appeared on the Northwest flight announcement screen: "Canceled Flight. See Agent."
Flight 255, bound for Phoenix and then Orange County, was airborne only a few moments before it exploded into a fiery ball of jet fuel, metal and body parts on a Detroit highway at the end of Runway 3C. All but one of the 153 passengers and crew members were killed.
Luck--the explanation for the unexplainable twists and turns that spare some from disasters--was evident here, too.
Booked on Flight 255, Robert and David McKellar missed the plane home to Orange County when the car they had taken to the Detroit airport blew a radiator hose.
William Wilder, a San Clemente engineer, was in the Detroit airport reading a Western novel but did not hear the Flight 255 boarding announcement, realizing too late that the plane had left. His wife, waiting nervously at John Wayne Airport for news of the severity of the Northwest crash, never knew of her husband's inattentiveness--and good fortune--until she spotted him in the Orange County terminal arriving on another airline from Detroit.
"When I saw him come off that plane," Rebecca Wilder recalled, "I could hardly wait to put my arms around him."
But luck works both ways and last Sunday in Detroit was no different.
At least four Orange County-bound passengers on Flight 255 were scheduled to catch an earlier Continental flight from Detroit.
But when a wing problem grounded the Continental plane, the airline rebooked Virginia (Ginger) Robinson, the nurse; Joanne Surowitz; Rhett Taylor Bushong, the football player, and Denise Best, a Detroit businesswoman, on Northwest Flight 255.
Each needed to be in Orange County that night.
The plane they boarded was a long-bodied MD-80, an updated version of the DC-9.
That aircraft had started the day at John Wayne Airport, where crews cleaned and fueled it at dawn for the cross-country workout that followed. Shortly after 8 a.m. it was in the air, headed east for stops in Minneapolis, Detroit, Saginaw, Mich., and back to Detroit to pick up passengers for the trip west again.
As the afternoon shadows grew longer, passengers booked on Flight 255 began converging on the Detroit airport.
Raphael and Lisa Tombasco arrived from Buffalo on a connecting flight.
They had spent two weeks in Upstate New York, visiting family and friends, but now were anxious to get back to their newly bought El Toro home.
Married last October, this was the couple's first vacation since their honeymoon.
They wanted to spend it in and around their hometown of Corning and the bucolic countryside with their most valued possessions--family and friends. They sailed, played baseball and attended a friend's wedding, all the while talking of their new life in California.
They had just bought their first home, a three-bedroom house in a quiet, woodsy El Toro neighborhood. As soon as escrow closed, they would move from the rented town house in Laguna Hills. The would hang their "Welcome Friends" wreath at the new house, where there would be room for visitors and children they hoped to have soon.