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'Forever linked' through Flight 1420

Crash survivors dedicate memorial to dead, honor heroes of night

By BY ANDREA HARTER ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published June 2, 2004 at 4:35 a.m.

— Evelyn Soo decided Monday night to let go of a secret she didn't want anymore. So she took out a notecard, wrote a few words and taped a small piece of green metal, a broken Lbracket, to the card.

The bracket is a piece of American Airlines' Flight 1420. It fell off the seat in front of her, 14A, and landed in her purse during the plane's June 1, 1999, crash.

"For the longest, I didn't know what to do with it," the Little Rock retiree said. "I had put it in a box with all of my 1420 stuff, and I'd get it out and look at it for awhile, then put it back in. Monday night, I decided I didn't need it any more, and I knew someone who did."

Lisa Rowe, 43, a Cabot housewife, was in 14A when Flight 1420 overran a Little Rock runway in the midnight crash that killed 11 people. She had tried to talk the airline into letting her have the seat. American, which destroyed the plane four months ago, had declined.

When Rowe opened the notecard and saw the bracket, all she could do was cry.

"You can't believe what a difference it makes. It's like the missing piece of me. I can touch it, I can feel it," Rowe said.

Being whole is what Tuesday's dedication of a memorial honoring the dead and the heroics of that night was all about.

About 150 people, the majority of them survivors, attended the ceremony at the Aerospace Education Center across the street from Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field. Five female passengers cut the ribbon guarding a monument that features etched photos of those who died. Others spoke or read parts of poems. The thundering roar of commercial jets and C-130s taking off from the airport drowned out some of their comments.

On the whole, the survivors seemed pleased with the memorial, which was designed by Larry Thompson, chairman of the Art Department at Ouachita Baptist University, where 19 of the passengers were students.

"It's asymmetrical, [three] fragments of a perfect circle," said Charlie Fuller, leader of the Ouachita Baptist choral group returning from a European tour on Flight 1420. "The circles are overlapped, because we are forever linked."

The memorial was originally planned for a site adjacent to the airport terminal. It was moved across the street because of increased security after 9/11. The night of the crash, family members gathered at the aerospace center to await news.

Survivor Dennis McCarty, a computer consultant from Kirby, read a letter from Gov. Mike Huckabee. Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey praised the emergency workers who responded that night, noting that everyone involved was impacted by the crash.

Alaska Army National Guard Col. Jeff Arnold, a survivor who helped save the co-pilot, said the best thing to come out of the crash was the development of a Compassionate Assistance Relief Effort, or CARE, card, to be handed to passengers following a crash. The card, now being used by Alaska, Delta and Jet-Blue airlines, gives passengers a contact number and lists some of the services that they can expect, such as help with transportation, lodging and clothing.

Arnold has been on the speaking circuit for about four years, talking about aviation safety. Another survivor, Paul McIntosh of Phoenix, who helped Arnold free passengers, is making the rounds, too, talking to future pilots at aviation schools.

"Many of the airlines truly appreciate listening to and hearing our stories," Arnold said. "It's been my experience they want to do better, to be better."

At the end, the survivors sang "Amazing Grace," just as they had during the ravaging storm that menaced them after the broken jet came to rest of the bank of the Arkansas River.

Afterwards, there was a palpable feeling of relief.

Jeana Varnell changed her mind about staying away after other survivors reached out to her Monday night.

"I wanted to come, but I'm not sure I should have," she said, adding she still strongly objects to the pilot, Capt. Richard Buschmann, being memorialized with the others who died.

At a private lunch, seatmates reunited for what is likely the last time. Nine of the Ouachita Baptist singers posed for reunion photos. Randy Hill, a lawyer from Arkadelphia, showed photos of his expanding family. Addresses and phone numbers were swapped, with long hugs and tearful goodbyes.

Phyliss Caruth, who retired Friday from Central High School after 31 years as a math teacher, said she has a whole other life to pursue, now that the memorial is behind her.

Cara Ashcraft, one of the two Ashcraft sisters who at the ages of 10 and 13 were traveling alone to visit their grandparents, returned for the dedication. Cara, now 15, plans to spend the summer visiting her grandparents in White Hall and taking driver's education. Her sister, Erin, graduated Monday night from Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas.

"She had a lot of stuff she didn't want to miss, you know, those ceremony things you do with your friends after graduation," her father, Rick Ashcraft, said. "We had to leave after they announced the As on the graduation just to make it here."

Another survivor missing from the service, Adam Salmans of Cabot, will have to wait for the video his sister shot for him. He is in an Army Airborne Infantry unit, serving in Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2004, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

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