30 years later: First-responders, witnesses remember Flight 232

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KELO) — 30 years ago on what witnesses described as a beautiful July day, a United Airlines DC-10 flying 35,000 feet over the Great Plains was facing disaster.

A cascade of problems ended up causing the flight crew on United 232 to lose control of the airplane. Captain Al Haynes decided to attempt an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.

Witnessing the crash

Sloan, IA resident Suzanne Bartels was leaving the mall with her mother on July 19, 1989, around 4 p.m.

“We were just crossing the I-29 bridge and I said, ‘Mom that plane’s really, really low,’ and my mom says, ‘Yeah, it is.’ And then we actually saw it crash and we actually saw it flip,” Bartels said. “The first thing that went through my mind was I hope nobody got injured because it looked just so horrible.”

GALLERY: Community gathers to remember Flight 232

On the front line

Now-retired Sioux Gateway Airport firefighter Vince Bugg had just ended a 24-hour shift.

Retired firefighter Vince Bugg explains what happened on July 19, 1989.

“I was listening to the radio at work and I heard them say that there had been a plane crash down there,” Bugg said. “I walked outside and I looked toward the airport and I could see a cloud of smoke. So, I just automatically left and went down to the airport.”

Bugg immediately got to work. He began driving a truck onto the runway. Another firefighter had to walk ahead of him looking at the debris field, to make sure nothing punctured the tires.

“Mainly it was the bodies, making sure I didn’t run over anybody,” Bugg said.

As Bugg was making his way toward the main portion of the now broken apart DC-10, he encountered a body and it’s a moment still vivid 30 years later.

“I could see this black gentleman lying on the ground,” Bugg said. “So I kept looking in my mirror making sure I didn’t run over him. When I finally got alongside of him and I happened to look down, he wasn’t black; he was burned.”

Most of his job that day was containing the fire. At one point, he was spraying the hose inside the aircraft, trying to get the smoke out of the way.

“Then all of a sudden, when it cleared, it dumbfounded me. Here’s the seats upside down, people are hanging upside down in the seats and that’s when I kind of stepped back and looked and could see the wing over me. I had never even noticed that; I was so focused on getting in there,” Bugg said. “All the time, we had always trained the plane had always been sitting upright. This one was upside down.”

Prepared for disaster

Training is what likely helped make Sioux City an ideal spot – if there was one – for this flight to come down.

In 1987, just two years before the crash, the airport had done a major disaster drill for an airplane crash with 200 passengers. First-responders, medical teams and even the media were involved, according to Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation executive director Larry Finley.

The disaster drill in Oct. 1987 helped prepare the first-responders for the unthinkable two years later.

“We learned a lot from this disaster drill,” Finley said. “People kind of chuckled when we were doing this.”

It turned out, it was no laughing matter.

“The thing was, we didn’t know that less than two years later, we would be doing the real thing,” Finley said. “People said there was never an airplane with 200 passengers on it that ever came into Sioux City at the time. Our response was, ‘You’re right, but look up in the sky.'”

On July 19, 1989, the crash took more than 110 lives. More than 180 people survived.

Responding at the hospital

Dr. Kelly Pomerenke was only a few weeks into the first year of his medical residency.

“Of course, we didn’t have cell phones at the time; we had beepers,” he said. “No matter what rotation you were on, you got a call about this.”

Dr. Kelly Pomerenke talks with family members of a victim in the United 232 crash.

Pomerenke was called to St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and spent the rest of the night there. He treated four to five survivors. A few were flight attendants.

“I also had a couple, I don’t remember where they were from, but I do remember that they landed in the wreckage. They didn’t have serious injuries,” Pomerenke said. “They walked to a rescue vehicle and they came upon their luggage; they picked up their luggage and brought it to the hospital.”

He remembers the couple’s luggage being intact.

For Pomerenke, as he looks back three decades later, there was no chaos just a lot of preparations.

“I think I can’t believe it was that long ago. I can’t believe there’s that many people survived. I can’t believe how well Sioux City was prepared,” Pomerenke said. “It was really a uniting of the community.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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