As others took time to remember on Memorial Day, Lisa Rowe of Cabot was dealing with memories of another type. Her memories of a stormy night 12 years ago arriving at Little Rock National Airport on a flight from Dallas, seat 14A, American Airlines flight 1420.
That night, her world changed forever within a few seconds of the landing gear touching down. The aircraft failed to stop and was torn apart by the approach-light structures at the end of the runway.
The accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board records that on June 1, 1999, at 2350:44 Central Daylight Time, the flight — a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-82 (MD-82), N215AA — crashed after it overran the end of runway 4R during landing at the airport.
The report lists 11 persons killed, including the pilot. The remaining crewmembers and 105 passengers suffered injuries ranging from serious to minor; 24 passengers were not injured. The airplane was destroyed.
In an interview Thursday, Rowe recalled the struggle she has had adjusting to what happened.
“You don’t ‘get over’ something like this,” she said. “You adjust to it, but you don’t ‘just get over it.’”
Though she still feels the effects of the crash, Rowe said she finally found herself “turning loose” of her anger after three or four years.
“It was so unnecessary,” she said of the crash.
The NTSB report attributed the probable causes of the crash to errors on the part of the flight crew.
The week of the anniversary date is always very emotional, Rowe said. “I find myself thinking of my 1420 family, and how they are doing.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘It’s OK, I know what you’re going through’ … but you have no clue unless you were there.
“People have told me to ‘just get over it.’ You don’t just get over something like this,” she said.
The effects have touched every part of her life, Rowe said.
“Like when that storm hit the other night, at 4:22 a.m. … It sat me straight up in the bed. … Since [the crash] storms just freak me out,” she said. “I do not like being alone. It reminds me of being back out in that field, all alone, thinking I was going die there.”
Diesel exhaust and fumes take her back to the jet fuel that coated almost everything, and of the fire that broke out shortly after the crash.
Visits to the dentist become reminders of being trapped in the wreckage.
“When I am in the [dentist’s] chair, with everyone around me, it is like I am back in my seat, trapped,” Rowe said. “I can’t ride in the back seat of a car. In fact, I don’t like being a passenger. I want to be driving, be in control.”
It was 10 years before she flew again, and even then, “It took a lot of drugs; drugs and the Good Lord,” she said.
Rowe is a youth leader at her church, the McArthur Assembly of God, and the youth were flying out on a mission trip to Venezuela.
“I just was not going to miss out on that,” she said. “But [on landing] the teenager next to me had bruises on his leg from where I was holding on.”
While everyone was reassuring her after the airplane touched down, they did not realize this was the most difficult part for her.
“It was after landing that the crash happened,” Rowe said. “I did not feel safe until the plane was stopped. … I used to think that [Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome] wasn’t real. But now I know it is.”
“In the beginning there was a lot of anger … I’d take it out on everybody,” she said.
Counseling after the crash was crucial for her.
“I don’t think I could have survived without it … It was a place to unload,” she said. “I’m a lot better now, but it has taken a lot of counseling and the Good Lord.”
The anger was for a number of reasons, Rowe said.
“That it happened at all, how we were treated… a lot of things,” she said.
Rowe’s husband, Norman, says little of the aftereffects.
“You just deal with it,” he said with a shrug. “You do what you have to do.”
Norman said the reality of the crash did not strike him until the next day, when he saw it on the news.
“Up to then, it wasn’t a crash,” he said. “Everybody dies in a crash. Don’t they?”
Seeing images of the airplane suddenly drove home to him the reality of the accident, he recalled.
Lisa said she was in the hospital for a week with deep bruising of the sternum
“It was eerie,” Rowe said. “Just before the crash it was dead quiet. The screaming and yelling did not happen until after we stopped. I knew something was wrong when I looked out the window, and all I could see was grass. I just closed the shade and waited.”
Once she was freed from her seat, she and her seatmate climbed out a hole in the fuselage, slid down the side, through wreckage and then past the airplane nose. The left side of the cockpit had been torn open exposing the pilot, still strapped in the seat.
“It was obvious he had been killed. I can still see him there,” she said.
Because the weather made it difficult to see, the rescue crews had to search for the plane and were blocked from reaching the site by a locked gate.
“They went to the wrong end of the runway,” Rowe recalled. “It was a good half hour before they found us,” she said.
It was about 4 a.m. before she arrived at the hospital.
The waiting family members were taken to the IMAX theatre, told only the airplane was stuck, Rowe said.
“I had to have a friend call [Norman] to tell him what was going on … remember, this was before cell phones were everywhere,” she said.
She was also beset by survivor’s guilt, Rowe said.
“Some of those killed were so young, they had so much life before them. Why was it I was not taken?” Rowe said, her voice trembling. “I still feel it.”
“But, I am better now, adjusting to it all. It took a lot of counseling, a lot of the good Lord… I wanted the ‘whys’, I wanted all the answers … but the good Lord just told me, ‘Sometimes your whys just never get answered,’” she said. “I realized had to stop trying to carry [the anger], and let the good Lord carry it instead.”