August 21, 1995 was a day like any other for the crew and passengers of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529.
Operated by an Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia (N256AS), the 90 minute flight was a scheduled service from Atlanta International Airport, to Gulfport Mississippi with 26 passengers and three crew members onboard.
In the flight deck was Captain Edwin (Ed) Gannaway, assisted by First Officer Matthew Warmerdam. The pair were joined by Flight Attendant Robin Fech. Fech had joined the company in February 1993 and had just completed her annual recurrent training.
Boarding commenced just before midday and the aircraft took to the skies at 12:23 local time.
All seemed normally as the plane climbed to its cruising altitude and Fech had just commenced the inflight service. She was just hading a passenger a drink when suddenly there was a loud bang and thud heard from the outside. FO Warmerdam later described the sound as like “a baseball bat striking an aluminium trash can.”
The aircraft began to shudder and shake violently. Fech was unaware what had happened, but immediately began to stow away any loose items in the galley and took her crew seat to await further instructions.
As she waited, she could see that a number of her passengers were terrified. Despite her own fears and still having no real clue as to what was going on, Fech began to calm and reassure those who were upset.
A blade on the left-hand turboprop had failed and the entire engine assembly had dislodged, deforming the engine nacelle and distorting the wings profile and thus its performance.
The flight crews first instinct was to return to Atlanta. Like all aircraft the EMB 120 was designed to fly on one engine. However the distortion to the wing and the drag created by the dangling engine meant that the Brasilia began to rapidly lose altitude. Therefore a diversion to nearby West Georgia Regional Airport was chosen.
“Brief the passengers.”
Eventually FO Warmerdam was able to inform Fech that they would be making an emergency landing and told her to “brief the passengers.” As the plane continued its uncontrolled descent Fech used the PA to talk to her passengers. She told them they had an engine problem, which by now most of them already knew by looking out of the window, and that they would be returning to Atlanta. She reassured everyone that the plane could fly on one engine but they would need to prepare for an emergency landing ‘just in case.’
She began to demonstrate the brace position to her passengers, ensuring each one understood by making them show her. “You’ll have to prove this to me,” she repeated as she walked up and down the cabin. She checked everyones seatbelts were tight and low and then began to brief people on the location and operation of the emergency exits.
It was then time to brief her able-bodied passengers (ABP’s), telling them how to open and operate the exits, what she would be doing during and after the emergency landing and how they could help her.
When she had finished, she started the whole process over again. Fech used every single second of the time she had available to ensure that her passengers were as prepared as they could be for whatever lay ahead.
Nowhere To Go
Up front, the pilots realised they were not going to make it to a runway and began to frantically search for a space to make an emergency landing. They spotted a large open field in Carroll County, Georgia and pointed the planes nose in its direction.
Back in the cabin, instinct told Fech that the aircraft was getting low and she began to make her way towards the front and the safety of her crew seat. As she went she looked out of the windows and saw fields and the odd house… She knew immediately that they were not landing in Atlanta.
Less than 10 minutes after the uncontrolled engine failure at 12:52 local the Brasilia pitched over and began to dive towards the ground, striking trees before hitting the ground nose first. The left wing was ripped off while the fuselage continued to slide across the field. It then hit a mound, becoming airborne again and spinning out of control.
An instant later, I felt the plane’s left wing touch the ground and snap off. A woman screamed from the front of the cabin. The second time the plane touched, it landed with a jolt. For a moment the only sound I heard was the tearing of metal, the impact and the drag wrenching the plane as we slid along the ground. The aircraft rolled to an abrupt stop, with the left side facing up.– A passenger later describing the impact.
The final impact with the ground had split the fuselage in two, rupturing the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.
Fech had been knocked unconscious by the impact and awoke to find herself completely flipped round in her jump seat, engulfed in smoke and surrounded by flames.
She had burns, cracked ribs and a broken arm and collarbone. Unable to see anything due to the thick smoke, she could hear her passengers screaming for help. Her training once again kicked in as she struggled to free herself and leave the burning aircraft.
What she found outside was utter carnage. As well as the mangled wreckage she was surrounded by many of her passengers, all of whom had survived the initial impact, engulfed in flames.
The post crash fire had meant that many had been forced to jump through the flames to escape the wreckage. One later described the horrific scenes:
“When I turned again toward the opening, I saw three or four people between me and the outside – all standing motionless. Then I saw why. The massive crack in the fuselage had become immersed in fire and smoke, and we couldn’t see past the furious flames. “God, there must be another way out!” wailed the thoughts inside my foggy head. I spun around to the rear of the broken plane and saw that everyone behind me was facing forward. I knew if another life-saving exit was accessible, people would be using it. As I turned back to the opening, we all shouted in unison: “You have to do it! You have to go through the fire! Go, go, go!” Knowing we had no other option, everyone began to leap through the fire, until it was my turn. I leapt through the fire too, but I don’t remember it. All I remember is hitting the ground outside the plane and somersaulting to my feet.”– unkown passenger.
A True Heroine
Fech began screaming for everyone to get as far away from the plane as possible as she cradled her broken arm. She began to rip off what was left of her tattered uniform to try and put out those who were still on fire. She then began to administer first aid to the worst injured.
Her attention was then drawn to the cockpit and her colleagues. Captain Gannaway had been knocked unconscious by the impact and sadly never woke up. However First Officer Warmerdam was still alive and desperately trying to escape from the mangled wreckage. With the help of another passenger whom she directed, they were able to pull Warmerdam free.
Fech saved the lives of 17 of her passengers and her First Officer. Passengers later spoke of her incredible skills and bravery that fateful day. Byron Gaskill said: “I can’t imagine anybody being more purposeful in doing her job.” And US Air Force Major Chuck LeMay said: “Because of her, folks inside the cabin remained calm. No one was screaming before the impact… We did not panic. Robin behaved like a drill sergeant.”
Four days after the disaster Fech was back at the crash scene. With her arm in a sling and using crutches to walk she toured the site accompanied by her mother, airline officials and the Carroll County Sheriff Jack Bell who also added his praise: “That lady did a lot out there. She’s one of the reasons a lot of those people lived.”
Tragically, nine passengers died that day.
Fech never worked as a Flight Attendant again, but her utter bravery is a testament to her and to the training we all receive as crew.
Some information for this article was sourced from the book – ‘Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529’ by Gary M. Pomerantz.
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