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Time Slowed Down: For Crash Victims, It Felt Like an ‘Eternity’

August 24, 1995

CARROLLTON, Ga. (AP) _ Awakened by a jolt, David McCorkell listened drowsily as the flight attendant assured the passengers of Flight 529 that although one engine had just gone out, the plane would be able to continue flying.

When she soon afterward announced the plane was returning to Atlanta, the computer executive from Northfield, Minn., grumbled to himself, ``Guess I won’t get any work done today,″ and pondered the time needed to return, wait for repairs or a new plane, then continue on to Gulfport, Miss.

There were 26 passengers aboard Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529, a commuter hop that lifted off from Atlanta on Monday at 12:28. Most were businesspeople on their way to meetings or presentations. There were also two Virginia lawmen going to pick up a captured fugitive, a couple of Air Force men headed to assignments, and some folks going to see relatives.

For them, the precise attention to time in air travel _ the boards with times for check-in, departure, and arrival, the persistent glancing at watches by passengers, the easygoing pilots’ updates on expected flying time coming over the intercom _ was about to slam to a halt.

How much time elapses from the moment you look out your window at pine trees rushing toward you to the instant you realize you are crashing? How many seconds tick away between when the groaning, crunching of metal stops and you know you have to get out?

How long does it take to open a seat belt when you are buried under people and debris?

Once you are safely away from the flames, how long does it take to steel yourself to plunge back in to help others? As you watch the terrified look of a man’s face trapped inside a cockpit as flames lick over him, how much time do you spend trying to free him?

For survivors of Flight 529, time seemed to drag.

___

Later, it would be determined that there were 9 1/2 minutes from the moment the left-engine propeller broke away to the crash of the Embraer 120 turboprop into a hayfield five miles from this city near the Alabama state line.

``There was a tremendous, huge, bang. Then it was over,″ said Byron Gaskill, 57, an engineer from Munroe Falls, Ohio. ``I could see the propeller was gone. It apparently penetrated the wing somehow. The aircraft shuddered. But the pilot regained control quickly.″

The plane righted, flight attendant Robin Fech returned from the cockpit to report that it would continue flying. Some passengers settled back into their seats, a few nervously eyed the remaining right engine, and a couple peppered the flight attendant with questions.

Several felt a dip. This time, Fech told them they were returning to Atlanta. She instructed them to assume the crash position _ doubled over, hands braced against the seat ahead _ as a precaution.

There was a sense of steadily losing altitude.

Alan Barrington, 35, a retail-chain personnel manager from Roswell, sneaked peeks out.

``I knew I wasn’t in Atlanta. I did see a lot of trees. I just assumed he had found another airport to land at,″ he said. ``I kept believing the trees were going to end and I was going to see an airport.″

___

The West Georgia Regional Airport was still six miles away when pilot Edwin Gannaway, 45, of Dublin, Ga., maneuvered his plummeting plane over the scattered homes in the community of Burwell, then through a line of tall pine trees, clipping their tops as the plane nosed toward an open field.

Passengers would describe a jarring thud, a loud skidding, rolling and sliding, a terrible groan of metal shearing and crunching.

Then, it stopped; like the end of a breathtaking roller coaster ride, McCorkell said later.

As passengers in the wrecked cabin slowly realized what had happened, some became aware of a strong smell of fuel and the popping and cracking sounds of fire.

New acquaintances Airman James Aleshire, 18, of Waynesboro, Va., and Maj. Charles LeMay, 42, of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska ran through a gap in the wreckage, across the grass. LeMay, a 22-year veteran on his way to a meteorology conference, and Aleshire, a five-month veteran on his way to begin duty at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., had chatted on the plane and now looked at each other and then back at the growing flames.

They raced back to begin pulling passengers out.

``It seemed like it took a long time, but I know it wasn’t,″ LeMay said.

Inside, Gaskill found himself flattened under an inches-high ceiling of mangled metal. He crawled away from his seat, fell backwards out of the opened plane, then patted out flames on another man’s legs.

Scenes of heroism were played out across the field. Passengers ripped off their shirts to beat others’ clothes. Some tackled those fleeing in flames, covering them and rolling them over.

From under a pile of people, luggage and seats torn from their runners, Barrington glimpsed daylight. He struggled to reach, then unsnap his seat belt.

``It probably took 15 seconds. For that eternity, I was sure that I would be trapped and burned,″ he said.

He was able to free himself and move toward an opening blocked by a wall of flame. He looked behind and saw no other way out.

He jumped, rolled and raised himself, shouting back: ``You’ve got to jump! You’ve got to go through the fire! There’s no other way out!″

Others emerged, engulfed in flames. Some charged madly away, trying to escape the fire running up their arms and legs.

McCorkell had gotten out quickly and raced through fire that melted the bottoms of his shoes off. He stopped, slid, then turned around and made his way toward the front of the plane. He saw glass breaking from the right side of the cockpit.

The plane’s first officer, Matthew Warmerdam of Macon, handed him a hatchet through the broken glass, saying, ``I don’t have room to swing it.″

McCorkell swung it against the reinforced glass, chipping bits away. He switched hands wearily. The opening grew and Warmerdam poked his head out to gulp air.

An explosion of flame sent McCorkell back.

Warmerdam, his pilot dying or already dead next to him, shouted: ``You’re not going to let me die, are you?″ Then, ``Tell my wife that I love her!″

McCorkell began swinging again, no idea for how long, before the hatchet top broke off. Just then, rescuers arrived with heavy axes. Firemen got a hose into the cockpit and pulled the first officer out.

Dazed passengers wandered across the field, clothes missing or burned to tatters. Charred flesh hung from some. Fech, the flight attendant, moved among them, one arm obviously broken, her face bloody.

Ambulances moved in and out from the field. Five people were dead or dying, seven were hospitalized in critical condition.

McCorkell watched the last rescues, then talked with fellow survivors.

He looked at his watch. He was surprised to see it was only 1:25.

``I did so many things, I had no idea what time it was,″ he said.

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