This year many Catholics are reminiscing on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s September 1987 pastoral visit to the United States and Canada. But it is also the anniversary of a tragedy that took place a month before the pope came to North America. A horrifying plane crash took the lives of 156 people on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Phoenix. The jet crashed shortly after takeoff onto an interstate highway, killing two people on the ground.
In 1987 I was working at The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Detroit Archdiocese, and we were already in high gear writing stories on the upcoming Detroit leg of the pope’s visit. But the crash of Flight 255 changed everything. A tragic story of this magnitude could not simply be ignored as if it were happening in some alternate universe.
Michigan Catholic reporter Tom Ewald was able to track down the chaplains who tended to the spiritual needs of the firefighters and other first responders at the scene (although the term “first responders” was not yet in the American lexicon). Heartbreaking as the stories they told were, the crash had one survivor: a 4-year-old girl believed to have been shielded by her mother as the plane went down.
Despite a broken skull, broken collarbone, broken leg and the third-degree burns covering 90 percent of her body — and the eventual amputation of one of her pinkie fingers — little Cecilia Chihan pulled through. Her grandparents had been able to identify her from a chipped tooth she had and the color of the nail polish she was wearing before boarding the doomed flight.
Once Cecilia was healthy enough to leave the hospital, an uncle and aunt in Alabama raised her with the intent of keeping her out of the public eye. Though curiosity over Cecilia almost certainly lingered in the minds of many, such conjecture was always politely tamped down.
However, in 2012, on what is also the silver anniversary of the Flight 255 crash, Cecilia is speaking up, albeit briefly and for a specific purpose. Now married and going by the name Cecilia Crocker, she appears in an as-yet-unreleased documentary called “Sole Survivor,” about people like her worldwide who were the only survivor in a commercial plane crash.
“It’s kind of hard not to think about it when I look at the mirror,” Cecilia says in the documentary. “I have visible scars.” She also has a tattoo of a jet plane on the underside of her left wrist to always remind her of the tragedy.
While reluctant to go public — as were most of the documentary subjects — “this ‘Sole Survivor’ project is about a group, and that’s why I’m willing to get involved and be part of something bigger,” Cecilia said.
The firefighter who found her amid the smoldering rubble of the jet’s wreckage, John Thiede, has kept in touch with Cecilia over the years, but himself never saw her in person again until her wedding day. “Just to see her in person was something,” Thiede says in a documentary excerpt.
The papal visit to Detroit that September went on as planned, with a terrific special issue of The Michigan Catholic (if I do say so myself) commemorating the trip. And while the utmost joy of the visit might have been tempered somewhat by the tragedy of the previous month, that sorrow was leavened by the miracle of Cecilia Chihan’s survival.