Chaos and Calm
The photo above reflects how different the coach section of the aircraft was from the front. Chaos in coach dictated to the passengers their lives were in peril. The passengers seated in Business and First Class were unaware of the fire. They knew their situation was precarious, but fire was not one of the issues.
The pilots, seated in the cockpit never knew there was fire coating the exterior of the aircraft. Fire alarms do not exist on the skin of airplanes, only in the engines, cabin or cargo area. At some point there was a fire warning alarm indicating that the #2 engine did have a fire problem, but Captain William Kinkead's decision to keep the aircraft on the ground was not based on the alarm. His decision to remain on the ground was based entirely on a faulty stick shaker. Not so for the passengers. The fire began outside the aircraft almost immediately after takeoff was initiated, engulfing the aft fuselage. As the L1011 was gaining speed, flames were soaring up, and the cabin windows were beginning to melt.
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In reports that followed the crash, almost unanimously the Flight Attendants commented on how "sluggish" the take-off felt. The plane seemed "heavy", didn't sound "normal". When the aircraft returned to the runway all reported hearing two loud explosions. The plane shaking violently, overheads popping open, ceiling fixtures vibrating loose and falling into the cabin areas. Passengers in coach were screaming, some trying to run forward. Business and First Class passengers remained relatively calm - because they did not see the fire.
Chris Kargle-Foster, Flight Attendant seated at the #3 right door, was pinned in her jumpseat by a passenger who had refused to keep his seatbelt fastened. When the plane hit the runway he was catapulted on top of her, pinning her to the jumpseat. Prior to take-off Chris had argued with this very passenger to keep his seat back up straight, seatbelt fastened and window shade open. Speaking little English - he had argued with her even to the degree that if an emergency were to occur - she (the Flight Attendant) would be responsible to open the door and get everyone out - NOT HIM!
Sherry Bencini, who was sitting at door #3 left side, saw a child fly into the air. As she twisted in her seat to try to save the child, the impact of the landing crushed her vertebrae. A passenger somehow managed to catch the airborne child. Sherry had lectured to the mother on the ground about holding the child on her lap for take-off - the mother felt that the child should be able to play in the aisles without any restraints.
Karen Lacey and Eunice Wong (commuters seated in the middle of the cabin between doors #3) watched in horror as flames shot into the cabin from underneath the emergency exits on both sides of the aircraft. They could not see into the cabin, as a wall blocked their view. And they watched as the rubber seals around the emergency exits began to melt. Their oxygen masks dropped - they both placed them over their noses. Eunice told Karen we are all going to die!
Paula Guice-Williams seated at the #4 exit right side kept yelling to the passengers to bend over and keep down as the plane slipped down the runway for what seemed like forever. Paula looked at the windows and saw the flames, then the windows began to crinkle - she heard an explosion - then she grabbed her flashlight. Paula knew if the flames made it into the cabin - so would the smoke. It was the light from the flashlight helped to guide the passengers to safety. This was Paula's first flight after her maternity leave. Paula promised herself that she was not going to die today, not in an airplane - she had a new baby who needed her more.
The entire coach section was bathed in an orange hue. Some passengers later commented that they were looking at the movie screen which suddenly turned orange -reflecting the flames outside. Passengers were standing in the aisles when the plane hit the runway, many were thrown to the aisle floor on impact, others fell when the nose gear collapsed.
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Passengers seated in Business and First Class were unaware of the fire situation in the back of the airplane. Their seats faced forward. They only knew that this was not the normal takeoff they anticipated. Overhead bins were popping open, ceiling fixtures were falling into the cabin, and explosions all around left few in doubt, this was serious.
While racing at 180mph - Ed Schwendner, the Flight Service Manager, could see passengers standing in the aisles, some even running forward - he unfastened his seatbelt, yelling at everyone to brace for impact ,and he was motioning with his arms to get down, get seated. As the aircraft lurched back and forth - Ed was thrown down into the First Class galley floor. He scrambled up, and managed to return to his jumpseat, Left #1 door. Just as Ed sat down the airplane made a loud groaning noise and rotated in a counter-clockwise motion - then bang! The nose gear collapsed - Flight 843 was now permanently grounded.
When the aircraft finally came to rest in the field, suddenly all was quiet. The plane was at rest. First Class and Business Class the passengers were extremely calm and quiet, moving forward the two front emergency exits. They knew nothing of the fire. The passengers in the main cabin knew differently, they were running for their lives, it was just a matter of seconds and the entire coach section of the cabin would become engulfed in flames.