Features

Crash course in faith

National | Christian collegians aboard American flight 1420 provided aid and comfort

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

David Ozmun awoke from a short nap and tightened his seat belt. It was bumpy as American Airlines flight 1420 from Dallas dodged thunderstorms and descended toward the Little Rock, Ark., airport just before midnight. He was seated next to an emergency window exit above the wing on the left side of the MD-82 jet.

Mr. Ozmun, a communications teacher at 1,440-student Ouchita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., for the past 12 years, was returning from a two-week concert tour in eastern Germany and Austria. He was part of a support team for the Ouchita Singers, a music group from the Southern Baptist school. One of the group's final concerts of Christian and traditional choral music was in Salzburg, before more than 100 newly arrived refugees from Kosovo.

Altogether, 31 people took part in the Ouchita tour; 25 of them were among the 145 passengers aboard connecting flight 1420 from Dallas. Oddly, the allied bombing campaign in Yugoslavia was responsible for the Ouchita party being on this flight. The group originally had been scheduled to tour China, but Chinese hosts canceled the visit after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. With the group's approval, music professor and choir leader Charles Fuller hastily pulled together the substitute European itinerary.

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Seated next to Mr. Ozmun was one of the coed singers. Across the aisle were Mr. Fuller and his wife, Cindy, also a music professor. Their three daughters were seated behind them. Seated nearby were 18 other students.

As the plane touched down, Mr. Ozmun recalls, things seemed normal, and he braced for the deceleration forces that kick in when the thrust reversers and brakes are applied. He remembers thinking it strange when deceleration didn't occur and the two-engine jet kept speeding down the runway in the rain. (Authorities say the spoilers weren't deployed. They are devices on the top surface of the wings that pop up, slowing the plane and pressing the landing gear more firmly against the runway.)

Suddenly the plane bounced; the interior lights flickered; seats and overhead bins shook violently. There were thumping sounds and other noises, bumps, and then a jolting, sliding stop as the plane went down an embankment at the end of the runway, sliced through the metal girders of a landing-approach structure, and slid into a marsh.

Mr. Ozmun doesn't recall any screaming or hysteria among the passengers.

"More like a collective gasp when the plane came to a stop," he told WORLD.

Smoke began spreading throughout the cabin almost immediately. There were flames front and rear; seats began catching on fire. Ahead of Mr. Ozmun but unknown to him at the time, the fuselage had split apart, opening a long gaping hole along the left side. It enabled many people to get out quickly.

Mr. Ozmun removed the exit window and climbed out onto the wing, leading the way for others behind him. He says he could see flames lapping around the wing. Fearful the plane was going to explode, he jumped off the wing, and his head banged into something sharp; the resulting gash was closed with stitches at a hospital later. He also lost his glasses. Bleeding, he ran some distance from the plane, then realized others might need help, and he returned. He dragged away from the burning wreckage a man who couldn't walk. Around him, Ouchita students were helping others out of the plane and into a triage area the passengers themselves had organized.

"It seemed forever before rescuers arrived," the teacher said. (Indeed, fire trucks and rescue personnel had gone to the wrong end of the runway, delaying their arrival on the scene.)

Misha Perkins, a senior from Texas, said she felt useless until discovering in the triage area that she could use her body to help shield an injured passenger from the weather. "I could put a calming hand on a shoulder, I could offer my body for warmth, and I could tell them about Jesus, which ended up doing more good than I thought it could."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the plane, Mr. Fuller had removed his exit window, and remained on the wing amid pouring rain and menacing flames, helping to pull others out until he could see no one left inside. Only later did the Fullers realize their daughter Rachel, 14, was missing. They found her standing outside on Mr. Ozmun's side of the plane, severely burned.

Luke Hollingsworth, a senior and fullback on Ouchita's football team, escaped through the tail. After helping to carry several others to safety, including a man with a broken leg, he reentered the rear of the plane to see if anyone else was there, but he was driven back by intense smoke and heat.

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