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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Flight 255 and the sole survivor, a quarter-century later

Cecilia Cichan with airplane tattoo. Credit: Soul Survivor
After more than 30 years in journalism, and thousands of stories heard and written, it's easy for the bulk of them to blur into faded memories. The story of baby Cecilia is one that stands out.

On the evening of Margaret's and my first wedding anniversary, a Sunday in mid-August 1987, we returned from a celebratory dinner out as the phone began ringing. It was Ray Jeskey, then my editor at The Detroit News. In his calm, matter-of-fact way, he asked if I could come into work. There had been a crash at Detroit Metro airport. It had been an incredible year in Detroit for news - cops were killed in ambushes, firefighters died in training accidents and fighting a warehouse blaze, kids were killing each other in a seemingly endless wave of violence over coats and sneakers.

I paused, trying to buy time to make up an excuse because I really didn't want to end our first anniversary celebration at my desk. I asked Ray how many people were aboard the plane, thinking it was another commuter flight.

"About 150," Ray said. I left the apartment a few minutes later, and didn't get home for three days. It was Northwest Flight 255, which fell to the ground just seconds after takeoff, disintegrating into a debris field of metal and bodies as it slammed into a bridge. Two people on the ground and everyone aboard the plane was killed -- except for little Cecilia Cichan, age four, who was found hurt but alive in the debris.

As compelling as that story is, even more remarkable was the reaction of her extended family, which took Cecilia in (both parents and a brother died in the crash) and then, in effect, made her disappear. They sought to shield her from people like me, refusing to talk to media or to make Cecilia available for photos. For years, they did this, seeking to let the miraculous survivor grow up in as near a normal way as she could, given the circumstances.

Now Cecilia has emerged, and apparently will be part of this upcoming doumentary, Sole Survivor on survivors of catastrophic plane crashes. I don't see many movies, but I think I'll catch this one (the trailer is embedded below). Margaret, whose fear of flying is palpable, will skip it, I'm sure.

Oh, and in the "small world" category, Flight 255's final destination that night (after a stop in Phoenix, where most of the victims lived) was John Wayne Airport. That's about four miles from where I now live in Irvine, California.
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