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A time to remember: Charlotte man recalls surviving plane crash 25 years ago

In the attic of his south Charlotte home, Bob Ryan keeps his crash box. It’s a dusty blue 18-gallon plastic container filled with keepsakes from the 1989 airliner crash that nearly took his life.

Ryan, a Charlotte bank executive, has only looked through it two or three times in the 25 years since the accident.

He doesn’t talk much about what happened that day unless someone asks. “He’s never the first one to bring it up,” said his oldest daughter Maddie, 21.

Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 232. Ryan was a 28-year-old passenger returning home to Chicago from Denver when the plane crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 111 of the 296 people aboard.

The plane split into five parts upon impact and experts would call it a miracle that anyone made it out alive. Many survivors told their stories on the national news in the days and weeks that followed. But Ryan never told his.

He had agreed to do a television interview after the crash, but canceled. He wasn’t interested in the attention.

Now, though, he’s finally sharing his story, partly because of the milestone of the 25th anniversary. It was a day that forced him to grow up, Ryan says. Now, he’s decided, his children are old enough to understand how the crash changed his life.

No way to steer

On July 19, 1989, Ryan, then a 28-year-old financial analyst at CitiCorp Diners Club in Chicago, was returning home from a training session in Denver on a 2:09 p.m. flight.

He was sitting in 23H, an aisle seat over the right wing.

At 3:16 p.m., with the plane cruising at 37,000 feet, Ryan heard an explosion. The National Transportation Safety Board would later report it was part of “a catastrophic failure” where assembly parts from one engine “forcefully discharged,” destroying the hydraulic system which pilots use to control and land the plane.

“It felt like being rear-ended in a car,” said Sumit Roy, a colleague of Ryan’s seated next to him.

Seconds later, the McDonnell Douglas DC 10 lost all hydraulic fluid, leaving the pilots without the capability to steer the plane. Odds of a full hydraulic failure are placed by aviation experts at one in a billion, the pilots would later say – so high that there wasn’t a contingency plan in place.

“It was like flying with no power steering. The pilot would turn left and the plane wouldn’t respond,” Ryan said he learned later.

Passengers weren’t aware of how much danger they were in, Ryan said. He worried more when a flight attendant asked him if he was prepared to open the nearby emergency exit. Shortly after, the pilot spoke over the intercom.

“(He) said ‘Listen, I am not going to lie, this is going to be a tough landing,’” Ryan said. “He never used the word crash.... We went through the emergency landing procedures and got into the brace position. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this isn’t going to be normal.’”

Coming in fast

The pilot, Captain Al Haynes, talked with air traffic control about potential emergency landing options if they couldn’t make the Sioux City Municipal Airport. Among them: Landing on an interstate or in a flat cornfield.

Haynes settled on an out-of-service runway at the airport. But the plane’s airspeed was twice as fast as it should have been, and slowing down would force the plane to roll over, Haynes said later.

On final approach, the pilots cut the power at the last second. The plane dipped right, hit the ground wing-first and then violently somersaulted down the runway, breaking into five pieces.

Ryan distinctly remembers the sounds of the metal tearing apart and the pungent smell of the jet fuel.

He recalls the plane going dark, then silent as it flipped over into a cornfield adjacent to the runway.

When his section of the plane came to a stop, Ryan says he was hanging upside down.

He unbuckled himself, then helped Roy down. Ryan saw flames on the other side of the exit door window, so they left through an opening created by the crash, jumping down about 4 feet into a cornfield

As they walked away from the burning plane, Ryan recalls, a rescue team approached them.

“They asked us who we were,” Ryan said. “They assumed no one had survived.”

Ryan had only bruises from his seatbelt. There were nine passengers in his row. Two had serious injuries. Four were killed.

Beating the odds

Ryan checked in and out of a hospital in Sioux City. He declined an offer by the airlines to fly out that night, stayed overnight in a motel and then rode the 500 miles home to Chicago the next day on a bus.

The crash was headline news for days, but Ryan didn’t want to talk about his own story.

“It became a level of notoriety that I absolutely didn’t want,” Ryan said. “So many people that I didn’t know would come up to me and ask me questions about it. I really didn’t like being a curiosity.”

A few months later, Ryan learned how remarkable it was to survive after hearing about investigators running simulations to recreate the event and study the landing.

“Every time it ended in 100 percent fatality,” he said.

Ryan found everyday acts to be difficult. He didn’t like getting on an elevator because he worried about the cable snapping. He didn’t like driving under the overpass because he imagined it collapsing on top of him. It took almost a year before he considered getting back on an airplane.

“To this day, when I get on a plane, I think about it,” he said. “I’m not afraid, but I think about it.”

He tried seeing a therapist, but that didn’t help. The only place he found solace was at survivors meetings in Chicago, which he attended for a year. It mattered, he said, having someone to talk with who was on the same plane.

“The other thing that helped was time,” Ryan said. “I remember visiting Sioux City on the one-year anniversary and thinking, ‘OK, it’s time to move on.’”

In the months following the accident, he got engaged. He focused on studying for graduate school entrance exams. He eventually attended business school at Northwestern University.

“It was probably at that point that I started maturing,” he said. “That was the one moment where I said, ‘It’s time to start accepting responsibility. It’s time to put the work in.’”

Haynes, the pilot, had a profound impact on Ryan’s life. Haynes was considered a hero for saving 184 people, but he struggled with the responsibility of the 112 who died. That includes one passenger who died weeks after the crash.

Haynes did not didn’t enjoy speaking about the crash publicly. He only gave speeches in the aviation community as a way to prevent another disaster.

“There were very few scenarios where there would have been any survivors of that crash,” Ryan said. “I think his talent and his humility just showed up... He was emotionally devastated by what happened. It got to the point where the survivors were trying to lift him up, because he couldn’t accept what a hero he was.”

Cindi, Ryan’s wife, believes that Haynes did more for her husband than just save his life.

“Bob is a man who is devoted to humility,” she said. “That’s something he attributes to Al Haynes.”

A time to remember

Ryan lives in Ballantyne with his wife and four children. His two oldest daughters, Maddie, 21, and Alexis, 18, attend the University of North Carolina. His younger children, Sam, 12, and Emma, 11, are still in middle school.

They all understand what happened, Ryan says, but it has been difficult for them to grasp the fragility of their existence.

That’s why he brought out his crash box.

“I knew there was going to be a time when I would want to go through it,” said Ryan, who spoke to the Observer in a series of interviews over the past 10 days.

Inside the box are the clothes he was wearing -- including a white button-down shirt with splatters of dried blood.

“It’s not mine,” he says. “Blood was all over the corn stalks and it would wipe on us as we walked through the field.”

He kept his pants and his loafers, still covered in mud from the wet Iowa cornfield. He has dozens of newspaper clippings, the TV Guide that promoted the Lifetime original made-for-TV-movie inspired by the crash and a Life Magazine with the headline “Finding God on Flight 232.”

“I’m extraordinarily blessed not only to have survived but to have been able to walk away from it,” Ryan said. “And to have lived an amazing life since then.”

He flies often, and says he isn’t scared of crashing. But he makes note of the nearest exit every time he boards a plane.

When he hears of an airline disaster, like the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner this week, he thinks about what it was like inside the plane. “I don’t view it from the outside in,” he said Friday. “I view it from the inside out.”

His crash box is tangible evidence of how fragile life can be, Ryan says. He talks with his children about how it’s important to appreciate what you have.

There is a memorial ceremony in Sioux City this weekend for the survivors and their families, and families of passengers who were killed.

Ryan won’t be there. He wants to go back, but will do it on a quieter weekend. He’d like to see the museum there that honors all the people who responded that day to help save lives.

“I’d like to see the people who were the rescue workers,” he said. “They are the great unspoken heroes of the event.”

He especially appreciates Haynes, the pilot who gave him a chance to survive and build a family. Haynes is 82 now, living in Seattle and is planning to attend the memorial.

Besides the 184 people that survived the crash, Ryan considers his four children to be lives that Haynes also saved.

When each child was born, Ryan’s wife Cindi sent the pilot a card. It included a photo of the Ryan family with the new baby, and a short note:

“Yet another miracle from Flight 232.”

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