The Worst Case Scenario

On this day in 1987, Flight 255 crashes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport killing 156 people; a four-year-old girl was the sole survivor of the disaster caused by pilot error.

The Northwest Airlines flight was bound for California with a stopover in Phoenix when it pulled away from the gate in Detroit. While the DC-9 Super 82 taxied out to the runway, the pilot and co-pilot failed to conduct their pre-flight checks according to procedure and, as a result, the takeoff-warning system was never turned on. Later, there was speculation that the pilots may have been rushing the checks to avoid incoming bad weather.

Flight 255’s captain was 57-year-old John R. Maus, from Las Vegas, Nevada. Maus was an experienced pilot who had worked for the airline for 31 years. Other pilots who had flown with Maus described him as a “competent and capable pilot” who had a reputation for operating “by-the-book.”

At approximately 20:32 EDT on the date in question, Flight 255 departed the gate in Detroit with 149 passengers and six crew members. The dispatch packet provided by the airline included takeoff performance data based on using runways 21L or 21R. However, the flight was cleared for takeoff on Detroit’s runway 3C, the shortest available runway. Flight 255 made its takeoff roll on 3C at approximately 20:44, with Maus at the controls. The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (195 mph, 315 km/h), and began to roll from side to side, just under 50 feet (15 m) above the ground. The MD-82’s rate of climb was greatly reduced as a result of the flaps not being extended, and approximately 2,760 feet (840 m) past the end of runway 3C, the plane’s left wing struck a light pole in an airport rental car lot.

The impact caused the left wing to start disintegrating and catch fire.The plane rolled 90 degrees to the left, striking the roof of an Avis car-rental building. The plane (now uncontrolled) crashed inverted onto Middlebelt Road and struck vehicles just north of its intersection with Wick Road, killing two people on the ground in a car. It then broke apart, with the fuselage skidding across the road, disintegrating and bursting into flames as it hit a railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94 (I-94).

The sole survivor of the crash was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Arizona. Romulus firemen found her still belted in her seat, faced down, covered in blood and soot. She was found several feet from the bodies of her mother, Paula Cichan, her father Michael and her six-year-old brother David. Cecelia sustained severe burns and fractures to her skull, collarbone, and left leg. She arrived at the hospital initially in critical condition, but later managed to make a full recovery.

33 years later, at last report, Cecelia is now happily married, studies art therapy and flies regularly. She even got a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist. “So many things, scars were put on my body against my will, and I decided to put this on my body for myself,” she has said. “I am happy. I’m just, I’ve never been happier.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.