30 Minutes That Changed Everything

Telling Kids It's Okay. . .

On July 19th, 1989, the tail engine of a Chicago-bound United DC-10 blew up, destroying the plane's navigation system. At this point, piloting the plane was like driving a car without steering or brakes. The two men in charge of flying the plane, pilot Al Haynes and United flight instructor Denny Fitch (who was, fortuitously, a passenger) were forced to use the two wing engines as navigation devices. By throttling the left engine up, they could slowly turn the plane to the right, and vice versa.

Despite the strain - they flew like this for half an hour - the two men stayed calm, and managed to get the plane to Sioux City, where an unused runway was available for landing. Capt. Haynes even managed to get a joke in as he prepared to attempt a landing. When the air traffic controller told him he was cleared to land on "any runway," Capt. Haynes responded with: "You wanna be particular and make it a runway, huh?"


In an amazing stroke of luck, United flight instructor Denny Fitch just happened to be a passenger on the plane. When the engine blew, he went to the cockpit to help the pilot fly the plane. (CBS)

On the flight were Debbie McKelvey and her two children, daughter Devon, 5, and son Ryan, 7, who were on their way from their home in Colorado to a family reunion in Pennsylvania. As the crippled plane made its way to Sioux City, she told her kids repeatedly that everything would be fine. That was not what she was thinking.

"I'm telling them what to do, I'm telling them to follow the instructions," said McKelvey, who now lives outside Charleston, South Carolina. "But in the back of my mind, it's going, 'Why am I even doing this?' Ryan kept saying, 'Are we gonna be okay?' And I'm going 'Yes.' But I'm thinking 'No.'"

When they hit the runway, at 250 miles per hour, almost twice as fast as a normal approach, the plane cartwheeled and burst into flames. But amazingly, 184 of the 296 people on board the flight survived. Among the survivors were McKelvey and her children.

That 30 minutes changed their lives. "People say, 'Oh, think you'll ever win the lottery?' I say 'I have." Surviving the crash, she says, gave her a deep appreciation for life, a recognition that has lasted through the past nine years.

But there were problems too. They had to deal with fear, and with survivor's guilt. The crash also caused problems in McKelvey's marriage; the experience created a gap between she and her husband, who had not been on the plane. "Without a doubt my children and I have a bond that I don't think anybody could penetrate," she says. "There's less than 200 of us that went through what we went through."

McKelvey had planned to work in some sort of human services field. But after the accident she decided to work specifically with people who had been traumatized. "I think [he crash] made me more aware of what people go through when they suffer trauma," she says. She is now executive director of a non-profit group home for emotionally-disturbed children.


Debbie McKelvey, center, walking with her two children, Devon, left, and Ryan, right. (CBS)

For three years after the accident, she and her children went through intense therapy. To conquer her fear of flying, McKelvey took some unusual steps. She had some friends who owned a small 12-seater plane, which they hooked up to a pickup truck. As the truck towed the plane along the runway, McKelvey and her therapist sat in the plane. Eventually the pair worked up to taking short air trips around the airport. She is now able to take commercial flights, although she admits that they are an ordeal.

Because they were younger, Ryan and Devon did not have such a fear of flying. In fact, Ryan, who is now 16, hopes one day to skydive.

How does she feel about the possibility of him jumping out of an airplane? She remains philosophical: "When you look at skydiving it's dangerous, you take risks. But that's what life is."

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written by David Kohn
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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