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25 years later: Sole survivor of Detroit plane crash speaks

August 14, 2012|By John M. Glionna
  • On Aug. 16, 1987, a Northwest Airlines plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit. Only one person survived.
On Aug. 16, 1987, a Northwest Airlines plane crashed shortly after takeoff… (Dave Atkins / Associated…)

Cecelia Cichan wears a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist.

It's a statement of sorts one of cheating death and an acknowledgment that a luckless flight she took a quarter-century ago has stayed in her dreams and in her daily reality.

Twenty-five years ago this Thursday, on Aug. 16, 1987, Cichan was aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 25, which crashed in the Detroit suburb of Romulus near Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, killing 154 people on board. Two people also died on the ground.

Cichan, who was just 4 at the time, was the only passenger to survive.

As the anniversary approaches, Cichan talked about the crash for "Sole Survivor," an upcoming documentary featuring stories of plane crash survivors. It’s an interview that celebrates life and deals with the horrifying “what if” – what if she had been in another seat or in another part of the plane.

“I think about the accident every day. It's kind of hard not to think about it when I look in the mirror," she said in a clip from the film that was broadcast by a television station in Detroit.

The Phoenix-bound plane had just lifted off at 8:46 p.m., when its left wing clipped a light pole, sending the damaged airliner into a tumble of death. The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 sheared off the top off a rental car building, leaving a half-mile-long trail of bodies, charred wreckage, magazines and trays of food along Middlebelt Road.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane's crew failed to set the wing flaps properly for takeoff. The agency also said a cockpit warning system did not alert the crew to the problem.

Cichan's parents and brother were killed in the disaster. The little girl suffered severe burns.

A memorial event is scheduled for Thursday in Romulus.

Today, the lone survivor is married and her name is Cecelia Crocker.

And she is not the only one who can’t forget that terrible day.

Romulus Fire Lt. John Thiede, who helped remove the toddler from the wreckage, has kept in touch, talking on the phone and meeting her in person on her wedding day.

"To see her come down the aisle, I came to tears," he told Detroit television station WDIV.

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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