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A SURVIVOR'S STORY: 'And by the way, I was in a plane crash'

by BY CARLA KOEN AS TOLD TO RON WOLFE DEMOCRAT-GAZZETTE | May 31, 2009 at 1:52 a.m.

— American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed off the runway at Little Rock National Airport the late night of June 1, 1999. The pilot and 10 other people died. Carla Koen was among the wreck's 134 survivors.

The sight of a crowd in today's airport, 10 years later, still makes her think of what she knows - and other passengers don't - about flying.

"You know that little talk they give?" she says. The one right before takeoff? Passenger jet travel is so safe, such a routine most times, who listens? She does, and she might be able to help, like they say, "in case of emergency."

"I feel kind of motherly."

And you know that feeling you get among other passengers at the boarding gate? Strangers, but maybe they're not so far removed as these same people would seem on the street. You don't acknowledge why. Nobody says the obvious. But what if the plane crashes?

Koen stands out in a crowd because of the hair color she likes to call strawberry blond but most people call red. Red hair, dark-rimmed glasses, 5 feet 10 inches tall. Chances are, you would notice.

Suppose you see this certain red-haired lady at the gate, and she looks back in an odd way, like she worries about you, and you wonder what's on her mind.

She is thinking: They don't know.

- what could happen. She does, but she flies again, anyway. Years of therapy allow her to understand how and why, but it's hard to explain, and she doesn't mind if people have quit asking.

They don't know. About me.

Koen, now 41, lived through the wreck that made world news. But other planes have crashed, and other troubles have happened since then. People forget. Now, the burning towers of the World Trade Center are the ghosts that linger at every airport security check.

"When 9/11 happened, for me it was like an old wound," she says.

People wonder how it felt to be a passenger in one of the hijacked jets that struck the towers. She knows how it feels to fly into a sudden, twisting shatter of glass and metal.

"I still have boxes in the attic," she says, like everybody has boxes in the attic - "labeled, 'Crash.'"

More stories - The crash of Flight 1420

People tell her they would have thrown all that awful, painful stuff away, all the evidence, court papers, the memories. Maybe they're right, she agrees - that's the normal thing to do.

She still has the brown water-stained ticket that put her on Flight 1420 and the boarding pass that assigned her to Seat 12D.

Wastepaper survived the crash that killed 11 people. What kind of fate takes special care of people's clutter and lets people die?

She keeps the ticket, framed, wishing it would answer the question.

Sometimes, just a bump in the air - the slightest bounce in the cabin - is enough to remind her that trips don't always go the way people would like. Nothing more, and she is back on Flight 1420, Seat 12D.

Sometimes, the glimpse of an airplane in a TV show will make her change the channel, knowing that the plane is apt to crash for the sake of an exciting drama.

The movie she would like to see, they never show - Carla's Happy Landing, call it, based on a true story, sprinkled with Hollywood pixie dust. The first half is real: The red-haired lady makes an easy flight to visit friends in Salt Lake City over the weekend. She flies back to Dallas on schedule. Everything is normal.

The last half is pure make-believe. The happy traveler in this now-imaginary picture makes the connection from Dallas to Little Rock on time, no problem. The flight back to Little Rock is a 45-minute drift on the gentle currents of a clear night. The plane comes in for landing like an egg in an angel's hand. Her friend, Jennifer, meets her at the airport. She is home by 10. What fun! The end.

"I like normal," Koen says.

The story of Flight 1420 would be the movie she turns off.

There has to be a lesson, right?

"Every time something bad happens to me," she says, "I try to figure out what the lesson is."

The lesson here, as close as she can tell "is to be more empathetic."

More and more, she believes, people are all connected. She boarded Flight 1420 with people she assumed were strangers. They turned out to have all sorts of unexpected links to her. Friends in common. Feelings in common.

People share ... the taste of chocolate, the sweetest kiss, the sunshine, the death of a parent, the fear of fire, the clouds in the sky, the fear of falling.

Falling.

Falling.

The story of Flight 1420, Dallas to Little Rock, starts the carefree way that horror movies so often do. The airport hums with normal commotion. But little bits of wrong begin to accumulate.

The weather turns bad in Dallas. Thunderstorms are closing in. American Airlines Flight 1420 to Little Rock is delayed an hour ... another hour. Home by midnight? Not much chance.

The plane would have to take off right away, and nobody is promising that the flight will leave at all. The check-in kiosk, where the ticket agent or somebody is supposed to know - keep the passengers advised - looks abandoned.

People wear down, waiting.

Koen sees a rumpled lot of discouraged travelers. Some are college kids, asleep in a sprawl on the hard floor of the terminal, heads on their canvas backpacks. She is 31 and would sooner not sprawl. Couples give each other neck rubs. She could use a massage to get the aches out, but she is traveling alone.

The airport is all out of hustle-bustle. No more businessmenon the run. No more cheery expectations. No more lame talk about, "Well," and a shrug, "guess we're still here." Anybody in the airport this time of night ... 10 o'clock, 10:30 ... should be home. Something's wrong. They're stuck, and they know it.

Shops along the concourse are starting to close. But there's a Chili's, and maybe a hamburger would taste good. A beer, in fact, would be terrific. The more she thinks about it, the more she expects a cold beer will be the best she can do for a long time.

The cool glass soothes her hand. She has no thought - how could she? - that she might lose her hand, or lose a finger, or lose the sense of touch very soon.

Glass in hand, she hears the announcement from the gate. Her flight is leaving. Now, now, now. Push and hurry, seats up, buckle in, clear for takeoff.

"I remember," she will say later, recalling the family travels of her childhood, "I was lucky when I started flying. You dressed up to fly. It was a dress-up occasion. They would ask, 'Can I get you a pillow?'"

Her flight lifts off from Dallas through a gap between storms, but it's rough-going. Sleep? Not a chance. "We were all pretty keyed up," she says. The flight attendants put away the clattering cart. They give up trying to serve drinks. But it's "no big deal." It's normal.

Nearing Little Rock, the pilot's voice over the cabin speaker says something he seems to think is funny, a joke to calm the normal jitters, about the lightning out there.

They don't know.

- but she does, and she never wants to hear those two words again.

"Light show."

Flash! Wow! But it's just a light show, after all. It can't hurt a big airplane, and this one is a McDonnell Douglas Super 80. It can't hurt a big airplane in a hurry to fly people home to their beds.

Still fly? Oh, yes. Flew before the wreck, lots of times. Why quit now?

"I love looking out the window," she says, "seeing the world get smaller."

The world is still out there, full of far-off places to visit. The sky is the same sky as always. The plane is no more likely to go wrong than it ever was. Some whole years, nobody dies in a commercial plane crash in the United States. She never used to imagine anything but a normal trip.

Coming in to Little Rock that night, she knew just what to say to the man in the seat to her right, the guy with the nerves on edge from too many delays, scared of the storm, convinced of the worst that could happen.

"I've flown all over the world," she had told this guy, ever so reassuringly. "I can't crash and burn in Little Rock."

Of the flight's survivors, most were injured. Koen's sprained ankles got better. Her back still hurts. She avoids rotation movements. The deep cut on her right hand has left a W-shaped white scar on her palm.

She doesn't show the scar to just anybody. But once in awhile ...

Suppose the red-haired lady meets a person she might be able to help, and she feels kind of motherly. Suppose she can sense this person needs to see a line of evidence that life goes on.

They don't know.

- but she does, that peoplecan survive more than they think. Bad things happen, but not all the time, and chances are you'll come through even the worst.

Memories last, too, like the view out the window from Flight 1420, Seat 12D, as the jet plane hammered through the light show, the storm wind, the hail, to land in Little Rock.

"We circled Little Rock several times," Koen says. "We'd drop and go back up, and down again. I didn't think we should land, but then I thought, 'Well, if the pilot is landing, he must know more than I do.'"

She remembers the blue lights that marked the runway in the blur of night.

Lines of blue.

Dots of blue.

Smear of blue.

This time, the descent is certain. The jostle of wheels on the ground, reassuring. Things have gone right - don't they always? - and this will be a tale to tell Jennifer on the car ride home. Thanks for waiting so long, hope you weren't worried, and here's the story. And the story will start with the word, "Whew!"

But trips don't always go the way people would like.

"You know that kind of lurch when you touch down?" she says. The plane slows, and the momentum throws you forward just hard enough to be glad your seat belt is fastened? She waited for it. Waited for it.

"We never slowed down."

Still going. Fast. Planes fly at this speed. They don't land at this speed, it's not -

Normal.

Off the runway.

Still going.

Hit! Something. Big, hard -

Still going.

Rip down her side of the cabin.

Still going.

Broken to pieces, cracked open, and the night spills in.

Still going?

One hundred, 200, 300 feet off the runway, and ...

Still going?

Stopped?

Stopped?

Ten years ago, she was the face that many news reports attached to the disaster. She told her story to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, to NBC Nightly News and ABC World News Tonight, over and over, until the hospital shut off calls to her room - said no to Diane Sawyer, no to People magazine, no, the patient needs rest.

"Fleeing survivors trod on entangled woman. Acrid smoke closed in while she freed herself." - Democrat-Gazette headline.

"I was in the media," she remembers, "and I sort of felt like telling the story was what I needed to do."

They don't know.

- but she does, about the need to tell. Koen was one of the Democrat-Gazette's copy editors. In other circumstances, the newspaper's report on her experience might have been the story of someone else's nightmare. The words might have crossed her desk to be checked for truth and clarity, for spelling and punctuation.

"They just poured over me while I was hanging there." - quote from passenger Carla Koen; news story after the crash.

The patient needed rest, but she understood too well that reporters have deadlines - knew all about the scramble to find someone able and willing to tell what happened. Now, now, now.

Big plane shot off the runway, hit the metal brace-work of a landing-light support, a walkway, ripped to pieces, wings off, stopped just short of a plunge into the Arkansas River.

Koen told her story from Arkansas Children's Hospital, and there were bandages, and her leg gone numb, gray T-shirt cut off, and somebody else would have to tell the particulars of that dazed night of eyes that seemed never to close, but she told all she could.

"Koen ... thought backing out the hole might work better. Down she stepped, as if on an invisible ladder. One leg caught on the jagged metal." - Andrea Harter, Democrat-Gazette, "Surviving Flight 1420."

The hole that had been the right side of row 12 opened like one of those exits "in case of emergency," Koen remembers.

She caught her left leg at the shin "between the side of the plane and the crush of the people." Bluejeans were no protection. The pressure mashed her leg. She would learn the medical term, "edema" (abnormal swelling), as in "lots of edema."

Fell. Cried out. "I'm hung!"

She found no help, and the plane caught fire.

Someone else had to copyedit the story about the deadof-night wait by Koen's friend, Democrat-Gazette columnist Jennifer Christman, for the flight that never wheeled to the gate that night in June, 10 years ago.

"Only when I saw one of ournewspaper reporters show up," Christman said, "did I realize this was no longer just picking up a friend at the airport."

The worst part? The hell of it all was the man yelling at her, "Get out of my way!"

The man looked to Koen like a horror-show monster - upside down to her, his face etched in lightning.

He did help drag her back from the edge, though, didn't he? And even if he'd only meant to pull her out of his way, it still counts as a life-saving gesture, doesn't it?

She wouldn't know. The answer might be that if he had saved her life, she would remember his name. Ask who saved her life. She saved herself.

Reaching up, she cut her hand on a saw's edge of torn metal or broken fiberglass, but she freed her leg, and she made the jump into the night, the rain, the soaked ground. She sprained her ankles. Nothing hurt too much. The pain held back, a surprise for later.

Meantime, the midnight light show offered more exciting drama.

Koen found two girls, ages 10 and 13, in what the newspaper headlined, "A Field of Horrors." Cara and Erin Ashcraft, she spells out. "Their names are important to me."

She led them away, kept them distracted with questions about school and what kind of dog they had ... a poodle ... anything to keep from looking back, where people were dying.

Firetruck coming. Slow. Lights. Slow. Lights of hope in the night.

"But you know they're not enough," she says - not enough to take care of the dying. And it turns out, the ever-so-slow-coming rescuers haven't come for you at all.

Confusion. Light show. School buses. Stay with the girls. Watch out for the girls. Ride the bus. The bus won't go. The bus has to back out of the mud. The airport fire station. There's a line to use the phone in the fire station. There's a line, there's a wait. Wait. Wait.

Ambulance! Ride the ambulance. Wet street, and the wheels slide. "Really scary." Children's Hospital, any hospital, whatever hospital. Children's Hospital. Stay with the girls.

Koen received a letter of recognition from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush for making sure the Ashcraft girls, from Texas, survived.

"Emergency situations such as these tend to bring out the best and worst in people," the soon-to-be president wrote. "Thankfully, the passenger list included good people like you."

She saves the letter as another piece of the new normal that is Carla-plus-Flight-1420. Newnormal life goes on, but nothing is quite the same. Work means something different than it did before the crash.

Former newspaper and magazine editor, former art dealer turned cook, lately office manager - the red-haired lady likes the challenge of a new situation that can teach her something.But it's a job, not a life.

"I arrange my life," she says, "so I can travel."

The airline paid her thousands in damages, and there was a court settlement - money enough to be worth telling, but money is the one thing she won't discuss. People tell her they hope she bought something she really wanted, and she did. She buys air travel.

You, too? Flying out, are you?

Suppose you find your seat is 12D. Suppose 9A, 14B, whatever. It's just a number. Settle in, forget it. And these faces around you? - You'll never wake up thinking about them.

Suppose the passenger next to you is the red-haired lady you saw at the gate. She looks pleasant enough, and she seems to know how to travel. She won't fight you for arm space. She doesn't seem the type to bore you with her humdrum life story.

Suppose you introduce yourself. Tell her your name, she would tell hers - Carla. Strike up a chat. She might tell you she likes to sing.

Maybe you'd rather wall off in your own space - make one of those elaborate, introspective, don't-bother-me productions out of unwrapping a piece of chewing gum. It's your choice.

Takeoff is normal.

But the plane hits some of that air the pilot calls "a bit of a bumpy ride." Up, down, tilt - geez! - where'd your stomach go? You turn to the red-haired lady, this complete stranger.

"Hope we don't crash and burn," you say.

It's the nerves talking. You know how dumb this sounds.

"Couldn't really happen," not a chance, you tell the lady in the next seat, wondering whatshe's thinking behind those darkrimmed glasses that make her look like ... an artist, you might guess. Performer? Creative type. Empathetic sort.

She sees you look queasy. This is nothing, she promises. Really. Nothing. She seems to know.

Her laugh is genuine. You feel better, and you wish you could be more like her, one of those people who never imagines the worst that could happen.

You don't know.

- but she does. She keeps a fire extinguisher in the car. She has a legal will in case of emergency. She tells her friends and family where she is going, and what's to be done if she doesn't come back.

She is thinking: I'm the only one here who knows how to get off if the plane crashes.

She is thinking: You know that little talk they give? - about the lights that come on to mark the aisle in case of an emergency? Oh, please! When the plane crashes, the lights go off. The plane breaks to pieces.

But the red-haired lady next to you seems so calm, and she is thinking: Statistically, there's almost no chance for me to be in another plane crash.

Sit next to her, lucky you - you enjoy the same assurance by proximity.

But you don't know her experience, of course, and so you talk about yours. Tell her flying makes you edgy, makes you sit up the night before, makes you feed the dog twice, makes you take a pill for the nerves, and you washed it down with an airport Coke that cost way too much, and a big drink right before the flight probably wasn't the best idea.

She might tell you about the many safe flights she has taken: to Alaska, Antarctica, Buenos Aires, Africa, California, China ...

"I've been to all seven continents," she'll say. "I love to travel."

She won't drive behind a bus. The bus smells of exhaust, and the fume is too much like the scent of jet fuel - leaking, flaming, fire in the aisle, like the shoes she wore that night wound up smelling; like the nice, black lace-up shoes she never put on again.

"Once you're covered in that stuff ...," she says. Jet fuel, slick stuff, oily, burns like nothing else, makes you try to flick it off your fingers, like spiders of flame on your fingers, just talking about it.

"You never want to smell it again."

She lost her glasses in the crash. Other passengers fromFlight 1420 have told her things she is glad she couldn't see. Her memory of those broken moments is made of streaks and phantoms. Red, orange, black.

People must have been screaming around her. She didn't hear them. Odd, isn't it? But no, nothing. The scene plays out in silence. Her sense of hearing seemed to blank out, leaving the smell inside the plane, and the taste of the fire's promise to explode, and she wondered if dental records would be enough to identify what was left of her.

"It was that smoky taste, that - like you're standing too close to a bonfire, and the wind shifts, and you get that big, hot mouthful," she says. "You know?"

Taste of a plane crash, the taste of wings ripped off, the fuselage torn in two, cracked open like somebody dropped an egg, hole gashed in the side, and look up - flash, wow! - light show! - and the sting of hail, and it's a good sign, really, it shows the plane has quit sliding, but there's no telling where.

And you feel here, you feel there, you see if your head still moves, feel for blood on your hands, try to move your legs, you have to move your legs, you have to have both legs, because - here - comes - your chance to jump. Into the night.

Out the hole in the side that shouldn't be there.

No idea how far you're going to fall.

Uh-oh, you say - what's that wrrr-wrrr-whining sound? It's nothing, the red-haired lady says, leaned back, looking comfy in the seat next to you. It's the landing gear, and it means we're going to be back on the ground pretty soon. What fun!

And once the plane is down, safe, slowing, and people are starting to gather up, fold their newspapers, feel to make sure they haven't lost their billfolds - only then, she might share a little something about herself.

You're the one she shows the scar on her hand. She wiggles the fingers to demonstrate that they work as nimbly as ever (because the doctors couldn't promise that), and leaves you with a thought for happy landings:

"Oh, and by the way, I was in a plane crash." Carla Koen lives in Little Rock. Ron Wolfe is a reporter and writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Front Section, Pages 1, 14, 15 on 05/31/2009

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