LITTLE ROCK It's been a long storm season for the surviving passengers of American Airlines Flight 1420 - five years to the day since the plane crashed off the end of a runway at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, in the middle of tornadolike winds, lightning and hail.
Today's forecast of mostly sunny skies is a metaphoric postscript for the last official reunion of the survivors, who are to dedicate a memorial to the 11 people killed and the heroism extended that night in an 11 a.m. ceremony at the Aerospace Education Center on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock.
The 129 survivors, mostly Arkansans, are the only survivors of a commercial U.S. airplane crash since 1994. That alone keeps a small handful in regular contact. Most, however, do not stay in touch, and fully three-fourths have moved on, physically and mentally, since the crash that split the jet in half on the south bank of the Arkansas River.
Their stories come from a pre-9 /11 world of human error, when planes crashed because someone or something failed.
Jamie Goss turns 26 today. She completed her degree in American Studies at Georgetown University in 2002, taught second-graders in Mississippi for two years, and now has returned to Little Rock. She works at the state Department of Education, recruiting teachers, and plans to move to Fayetteville this fall to start law school, following in her dad's footsteps.
Herself recently engaged, Goss traveled to North Carolina to attend a weekend wedding, then took a roundabout return flight to Little Rock with her fiance Saturday night.
"So here we are, the flight is delayed, we're on a small jet coming in from Detroit, of all places, and it's 10 o'clock, it's stormy and dark, and I just had this 'oh, no, not again' feeling," she says. Her parents were waiting in the terminal, and the flight had been removed from the screen, just as Flight 1420 was.
"You get that sort of bizarre, flashback feeling. But you know what? It was OK," Goss says. "It was all right. I'm all right."
Rather than attending the memorial today, Goss will be working on her tan at Greers Ferry Lake. "My way of working through it, the first year, was just needing to know what happened. I sort of bump into people from the crash from time to time now, but I don't stay in touch.
"After all, it is my birthday, and I want it to be about something other than that. I'm just now getting comfortable with flying again."
Tad Hardin, 27, will be flying today, but not to Little Rock. Hardin, who is finishing his doctorate at Florida State University in Tallahassee, is en route to Malibu, Calif., to play piano in Pepperdine University's annual Songfest workshop, which features some of the top talent in the nation.
When he returns home in two weeks, he'll be busy preparing for his most challenging performance yet, as a new dad. Hardin and his college sweetheart, Monica, married a week after the crash and moved to Florida to start graduate school. Their son, already named Zachary Austin, is expected July 6.
Hardin just finished counseling last week.
"I went through one semester trying to deal with things on my own, but then my wife said, and she was right, that I needed some help. And it's brought to my mind some important things I wouldn't have considered, like how this will affect my parenting, you know, the first time I'll have to put my own child on a plane, or put them on public transportation."
Overall, he feels healed, emotionally and spiritually, of the trauma, which was compounded by the loss of his seatmate and fellow choralist, James Harrison, who died of smoke inhalation.
"This experience has put a lot of things into perspective," Hardin says. "Nothing is a sure thing. Even the safest things in life can fail you."
The experience also tested the strength of a young marriage.
"This was our test of our resolve as a couple. And we made it. Now I can look into my future, because we've done a lot of growing up in five years, and three or four years ago I couldn't really see the future, but now I am really excited about having a family and a life. A real one."
Having a life and not wasting a day is what Kelly Williams is about.
The father of four will take his teen-age son, Ben, on an adventure later this month. They have signed onto a Mount Kilimanjaro climbing expedition. Williams professes love for Arkansas, but the mountain-seeker inside the Colorado native still calls to him.
There's a move in his future. Transferred to Conway just after the crash - he was then on an advance trip to buy a house - he and his family will be moving soon to Bentonville. Instead of being a district manager for Sears, Williams will finally own his own store.
"Life keeps opening up great opportunities for me. I'm not about waiting around," he says. He won't be at the memorial service.
Nancy and Craig Wood will. The Little Rock couple has reached a respectable retirement age, but neither has a rockingchair future in mind. In his spare time, Craig makes furniture for children, once a hobby, but now on such a large scale that he's just built his own workshop, outgrowing the couple's garage.
"We live each day to the fullest," says Nancy, 69. "I don't know that I'd call it life-changing, but we are more expressive and open with our friends about our feelings for each other, and we travel, probably more now than ever."
Nancy still has some nerve damage from the broken neck she suffered in the crash. "It'll tingle at a time when I least know it's coming." But she is hesitant to complain. "We were very lucky to have our lives."
"Even five years later, it's not something you ever, ever forget."
Jeana and Mark Varnell can attest to that. The youngest married couple among the survivors, the Varnells have become reclusive since the crash, dedicating their time to loving their 5-yearold, Grant.
"I can't seem to keep my mouth shut when people make me mad anymore, so I just stay away," Jeana says.
The Varnells aren't flying yet, and don't plan to. They drive on vacations or take a train. Building a new house seemed like a good idea, but now Jeana hates to be outside in the front of the house, working on the yard.
"If someone else comes outside, I'll go inside. I don't know my neighbors. I don't feel a need to connect with people; in fact, just the opposite."
She's not going to the memorial, because the pilot, Capt. Richard Buschmann, is memorialized along with the 10 dead passengers. She doesn't think he should be included, and she isn't the only one who feels that way.
"He had my life in his hands. He was physically in control; I was not," Jeana says. "I think including him in the memorial makes him some sort of victim, and he was not. There is a big difference between him and those who were helpless at his hands."
More than two years after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded it was caused by pilot error.
"Whatever lesson I was supposed to learn from this, I did not," Jeana says. "I spent a year and a half on the couch, unable to move, and my baby hated me, wouldn't have anything to do with me, would have gone to a stranger before he would go to me.
"Then, one day, I just got up and loved him, no matter what. He is my life, and I don't care if I do nothing the rest of my life but just look after him, and protect him and love him. And, wouldn't you know it, he's obsessed with airplanes now, not dinosaurs like other kids, airplanes."
Jeana says that it's helped that she and her husband were both on the airplane. "I don't know that anyone else would have 'got it,' and could have lived with me," she says.
'MONEY MADE IT WORSE'
The crash cracked more than bones and psyches. It wrecked the marriage of at least two couples. Larry Bulloch of Denver left his wife, Susan, within a year of the crash; they later divorced.
Brenda and Quintin Salmond of California, newlyweds in firstclass who were severely injured, have mended as much as they can physically but are locked now in a bitter divorce complicated by a multimillion-dollar settlement from the airline.
"The crash changed us; the money made it worse," says Brenda, 52. "It brings out the best in people in times of crisis, trying to heal, but your perspectives change, and when you throw debt and a lot of money into it, it brings out the worst."
At least two passengers who received large settlements have spent nearly all their money. One reports being stalked by a con man. Another sent out large checks to his favorite charities, with a note that if they asked him again for money, he'd never contribute another dime.
Among the other survivors, the most common use of the settlement money was to build a home, a symbolic structure of security. All of the houses are brick or sturdy concrete.
Lisa Rowe, 43, of Cabot would have spent every penny she received for a piece of the plane. She wanted her seat, 14A. But American Airlines would not cooperate. The plane was destroyed at an unnamed location in February.
Her hopes of getting a personal apology from Robert Baker, who was in charge of the company at the time of the crash, are gone, too. He died of cancer last year.
There are some stories of hope among from the wrecked lives. Vocalist Kristen Maddox, who lost her singing abilities after her throat and hands were severely burned in the crash, has found a new life in upstate New York with her husband, James Cheng. Last month, she graduated from nursing school. She believes God, through the compassionate care she received during many arduous hospital stays, led her to the vocation.
Charlie Fuller, who led a 19-singer choral group from Ouachita Baptist University, has continued to take his students abroad to perform. His latest group returned from Europe two weeks ago. Today he officially becomes dean of fine arts at Ouachita Baptist.
Fuller, who lost his 14-yearold daughter, Rachel, in the crash, was behind the memorial from the start. He led the effort to raise the $30,000 needed, $15,000 of it from Gov. Mike Huckabee's discretionary fund. He and his fund-raisers did not accept money from American Airlines, which contributed $40,000 to a memorial in Russellville that commemorates six tour-group members who died in the crash.
Fuller agrees some of the passengers are "split" over the decision to include Buschmann in the memorial. And he knows a compromise - removing Buschmann's title - didn't appease everyone.
"Memorials are not for the people who are gone, but for those who are left behind," Fuller says. "Capt. Buschmann's death was a loss to his family, too. ... To leave him out would have been to deny their loss and symbolize our loss as something greater. Not only would that have been cruel, it would have diminished the memorial itself, and diminished everyone else on the plane."
Sharon Angleman, 43, is about moving on now, and letting go of grudges.
"I'm tired of being stuck, and I'm going to the memorial as sort of a closing point, an important milestone. I'm looking for inspiration," the Rogers resident says.
"I don't wear a watch, still, and I do feel that a change is coming. I'm so sick and tired of being in a funk, not doing anything productive. I haven't finished my master's thesis, and I should have taken a lot more from this experience than I have. I guess wanting to is an important step, though."
She's started writing again, only recently, and it's strange to her, to find pleasure in her own words.
"I'll read something and I'll think, that's pretty good, who wrote that, and when can they write something else?"
University professor Julia Ferganchick, 35, is writing again, too. At home now in Tucson, Ariz., she has found love and a measure of happiness. She's taken up art lessons, and is teaching part time at Arizona State University.
During the trip back to Little Rock, she planned to burn some of her crash-inspired drawings, which dealt with death and darkness.
If things work out, she'll get to meet the man whose life she saved that night. The hand she held to Fred Agag's groin kept him from bleeding to death. Ferganchick hasn't seen him since.
"Five years out, I can't believe that I am not healed, that this is still the major event in my life, and my language skills are still sort of scrambled, but art, painting, is helping me be creative and expressive," Ferganchick says.
"I still get mad at the plane crash for stealing my life - I'd have tenure-track now - but in other ways I have other things I'd have never have. I have birds, four chickens, laying hens, a garden and motorcycle."
Despite a broken leg two years ago, the motorcycle has given her freedom.
"I'm still in therapy, but, you know, every day when I get home from riding my bike, I say, wow, I'm safe and I made it. And then I say, thank you."
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