July 30, 1992, I was the last person to board Flight 843, San Francisco bound. Little did I realize my life was about to change forever. My name is Kaye Chandler, and proudly I am a TWA Flight Attendant.
February 11, 1970 began my first day of training as a Trans World Airline Hostess. The term Flight Attendant actually came about a couple of years later when men joined the friendly skies. During the late 80’s and 90’s TWA became sky king of the world - from Hawaii to Bombay. Most of us were working as many international flights as we could, and glamorous does not even begin to describe the lifestyle of an International Flight Attendant. We traveled the world like most people take a trip to the grocery store.
Having just landed at Kennedy Airportfrom Madrid, I quickly changing from my uniform to street clothes - I raced to the domestic building, gate 3, Flight 843 to San Francisco was delayed. Passengers were in the middle of boarding and a few of the commuter crew members were gathered together, as always laughing, talking and waiting for their turn to board. Karen Lacey and Eunice Wong, long time friends from San Francisco had the jumpseats. They would be sitting in the aft section of the plane. The plane was oversold and the agents had actually paid a few people to take the later flight. My chances of getting on this plane were slim and none.... almost.
As the last few passengers walked down the jetway - the boarding agent asked if I wanted to walk down with her and see if any empty seats might appear. She explained that boarding was a mess and their seating charts were way off. The agent and I stood at the boarding door when Eunice came running up from the back of the plane waving her arms and saying; “don’t close the door - we have an empty seat in the last row of coach.” The agent looked at me and asked if I would prefer to sit in First Class and use a surcharge (a small fee employees pay to upgrade). Absolutely! The agent briefly told me that she had moved a very rude and obnoxious woman up to First Class and would rather return her to the back of the plane to the seat she had really paid for. (During the evacuation this was the woman who threw herself down in the First Class galley kicking and screaming refusing to evacuate - a couple of crew members picked her up and tossed her out the exit). So I had my seat - row 1, seat #2.
I raced around to stowing my luggage - heading for the lower galley, I quickly said hi to Ed, , Rose and Aleta. The main galleys on TWA’s L1011s are located one level down from the cabin. Lots of little secret stowage compartments existed there - for crew use only. Marilyn, who was also commuting home, asked if I would please take her bag below. Paula and Joanie were below setting up the galley for the in-flight service. The announcement to prepare for departure was made - we were all going to California!
Settling in, I glanced quickly at my seat partner, an elegant looking woman, dressed in a designer Chanel suit complete with expensive Marsh-Jordan shoes. She was asleep. I took out my book feeling very pleased that I would be home a couple of hours earlier and riding comfortably in First Class.
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The aircraft rotated for take-off and the #2 engine was fired up. (Later on - literally). As the aircraft began to gather its V1 speed for take-off, I put my book down and listened. For whatever reason, something just did not sound right. Consider it years of experience or intuition - but something seemed very wrong. The plane began to lift-off the runway when suddenly it happened - we slammed back down - and a loud bang was heard, followed by a second. The sleeping woman next to me woke, looked at me and asked; “what just happened”? My reply was that we were ok, this was just a new take-off technique (ha - whatever you do, do not let the passengers know you are worried - training). I looked out the window and saw the land moving past us fast - way too fast.
Now the plane was vibrating violently and overhead bins were popping open – luggage was falling everywhere with more explosions - brakes, tires, whatever. Ceiling fixtures were jarring loose and falling down. And still the plane was not stopping. Throughout our venture down the runway I kept explaining to my seat partner what I thought the loud explosions were and what I thought was going on. She asked me if I was a Flight Attendant, and I replied, “Yes”. She said, “Good” (like I had some magic wand to get us out of this disaster). I looked at Ed’s face (our Flight Service Manager) and could tell something was terribly wrong - he was staring at the back of the plane. Then suddenly he was out of his seat - yelling to sit down, waving his arms about. The plane suddenly made an abrupt turn to the left, and Ed was thrown down onto the First Class galley floor - we now were racing into the field!
Ed was trying to scramble back to his seat, barely getting his seatbelt back on when when the nose gear collapsed. We heard a loud groaning noise, the front of the plane rotated, lurching then down - thump. We had stopped. All was quiet. I tossed my book at the wall in front of me thinking this is one book I will never finish. I then jumped up from my seat, and told the lady next to me to move - fast. She asked if she should put on her shoes. High heels - yike’s - they would tear the slide to pieces. I calmly said no - leave them, you can retrieve them later.
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Passengers were moving towards the #1 left exit door, behind me. I was the first to face the door. Ed was yelling, “Keep everyone away from the door”! Mary Ann was at my left - eyes wide, with a look of “What the hell is going on?” I had my arms spread wide, to keep passengers back from the door, as this particular door pops inward and then up into the fuselage. I heard the Captains voice over the PA system telling everyone to evacuate immediately. Ed pulled the emergency handle - we all watched as the slide slowly un-furled. Mary Ann grabbed the left door grip and I stood over the slide. During safety training when we practice evacuations -the joke is “follow me”. My worst nightmare - I was dressed in street clothes - out of uniform-being first was always a joke. Mary Ann was Ed’s back up for the door - I had no choice but to be first down the slide, move to the left and help passengers evacuate. With the nose-gear collapsed, the distance from the Left #1 door to the ground was only about 2 maybe 3 feet. Passengers were running down the slide and onto the field.
I stepped off to the left, next to the slide then looked at the fuselage of the airplane - and froze - the entire aft section was a mass of smoke and fire - my dear friends were trapped and being burned alive (so I thought) . I could also see fire under the plane - I thought of Eunice and Karen, Paula and Joanie - and I couldn’t do anything to help my friends. Two explosions occurred on the left side, seconds apart. Smoke soared into the air. I had just witnessed the #3 and #4 left slide doors blow up - surely everyone was trapped. I looked at the #2 left door just as it opened and saw Aleta fly out of the emergency door exit - all I could think of was, what was she doing? Some new procedure - had I missed something in training? She then pulled herself back in. The #2 slide was inflating.
My eyes turned toward an access road and I saw a bright chartreuse pick-up truck speeding towards us. My thoughts were, if this is the fire department they are going to need more than one little pick-up truck to put this fire out. Reality, it took a fleet of fire trucks and 45 minutes before the fire could be contained.
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I went into what is called “survivor shock” - I actually felt it happen. My friends were trapped and I was ok. But then suddenly from underneath the fuselage a giant rabbit ran to me and stopped. He sat high on his haunches and our eyes connected. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing - what the hell is going on! Later on when I described my rabbit friend - I said he was about 3 feet tall. Oh sure. A 3 foot rabbit - ha! A few months later, I was on another TWA aircraft and we aborted the takeoff 767 same runway same airport - deja-vu). The crew knew my story and was concerned, I was shaking. Later on as I related my own story to the crew I talked about the 3 foot rabbit. Prior to this flight - any time I talked about the "rabbit" most crewmenbers would look at me like I was still on some funny stuff from the 60's. But then one of the Flight Attendant's said, “Look at what I just read.” She was reading about the history of Idlewild Airport, (Kennedy), and years earlier a crate of Texas jackrabbits broke and they have survived on the island for all of these years and they were described as being “3 feet” tall! Whew!
The rabbit centered me. As he hopped away I realized that this plane was on fire, wings loaded with jet fuel - this airplane was about to blow up and passengers were standing next to the fuselage talking. I screamed with all of my might –“Run for your lives, get away from the plane - it could blow.” I then ran into the field and kept yelling; “RUN -RUN -RUN! DON’T STOP! Passengers who were being evacuated through the left #2 door were also gathering - UNDER THE LEFT WING! I turned and ran to them all the while yelling run - get away from the plane. I remember stopping by the #1 engine, looking at the blades slowly turning with that click-click sound engines make when they are shut down. I kept yelling, wondering just how long before the plane blows up. I kept yelling to run, standing there looking at the burning aircraft, when I realized people were everywhere - and they were all running. I had finally found the reason I was on flight 843.
A couple of years later, one of my Flight Attendant friends said she had a woman on her flight - this lady had been on F843. The woman told my friend that she would never forget the person in the peach colored dress yelling for everyone to run - run for your lives. She said she felt so foolish thinking that just because she was out, she was safe. She was pleased to know it was a Flight Attendant yelling. It made sense.
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In the field I began to look for other crew members, or anyone who would need assistance - someone injured. I found the lady who had been seated next to me and asked if she was ok. Yes. Then I ran into a friend from Petaluma, Bea Collins, - someone who I had worked with during our strike years. Bea was returning to San Francisco after a visit with her family in Portugal. She told me she was in the back of the plane, where the fire was. She told me she was standing in the aisle when the plane left the ground. She then asked if I had my asthma medicine with me - if not she would share hers (we were fellow asthmatics). My thoughts were if Bea managed to escape, could my fellow crew members have made it out as well?
Comforted by the knowledge that Bea and my seat partner were ok, I moved on to see if I be of could help, someone injured, a child lost, also if I could find Eunice or Karen. Suddenly there she was - Eunice, my friend - we ran to each other, hugged, and cried. She told me how horrible the back of the plane had been. People screaming. She told me about flames shooting under the cabin doors and the windows melting. She said the entire back of the plane was cast in a strange orange glow - the fire. She said she did not think she was going to make it and she was one of the very last to evacuate. As we watched the plane burn - Eunice then asked if I thought that this crash would make the evening news. I stared at her with disbelief! “Evening news, this is international news. Eunice, this is big!” She replied, “No, no I don’t think so....”
Together, we began looking for others. Eunice was pretty sure Karen got out, but she didn’t know about Paula, Joanie or Sheri. Foam was everywhere as the fire department fought the flames. While we were looking for others, Eunice screamed; “oh my god - look BLOOD!” Right in front of us was a huge glob of a bright red substance. A man was on the ground trying to scoop up some of the glob. About the very same moment Eunice and I both recognized what the glob was - spaghetti sauce! This passenger had foolishly risked his life for a jar of spaghetti sauce. We both left just shaking our heads in amazement, go figure.
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Mobile lounges were sent to the field to retrieve both passengers and crew. We all watched the plane continue to burn, with a mighty grone the tail section dropped to the round. It was over. Eventually the mobile lounges returned all of us to the main terminals where TWA support teams were there to assist all. We, the crew members were whisked away in TWA vans, back to Hangar 12. When I positioned myself in the last row of the van, I was seated next to two women, who I recognized but really had never met. Pat Rice and Judy Zimmer (In Flight supervisors)they introduced themselves to me. I, in return said hi,; “I’m Kaye Chandler”. They both looked at each other with surprise, turned back and said; “so you’re Kaye Chandler!” I never did quite understood what they met.
Once back at TWA’s hangar 12 - we all shared in the joy that everyone survived. TWA people were running up to us with hugs, kisses and tears. Even the ldy who cleaned the third floor of the hangar grabbed each of us, crying and hugging with such compassion.
We stayed at the hangar for a couple of hours. First to write down our own experiences, then to call family and friends telling them we were all ok. There are not enough words to say how smoothly the Flight Attendant supervisors and IFFA, our union representatives worked together. And they all kept shaking their heads in amazement that we all survived, and all of the passengers. I don’t think we, the Flight Attendants really realized that this truly was a miracle. Even today, it is still rather surreal.
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Next we were whisked away to an evening at the Airport Holiday Inn. The entire crew cannibalized the tiny gift shop, stripping it of mascara, toothbrushes, hairdryers and T-shirts to sleep in. I still have my Minnie Mouse t-shirt. I slept in it for a full year - my comfort zone.
Once settled in our rooms, we met downstairs in a conference room that TWA had quickly set up. Dinner was being served along with a glass or two of vino or ale. Just a few hours earlier we were all standing in a field watching our plane burn - now we were sitting in a room dining on pizza together. In retrospect - this was really rather difficult to comprehend. Anyone looking at the dinner pictures would question if the plane crash really existed or we were just having dinner together.
Friday July 31, 1992
Friday morning we met once again in the same room. Breakfast was served, but we were more interested in the collection of newspapers on the table. We were being called “hero’s”. Front page news. The TV’s were all touting the miracle of F843 and footage of the burning aircraft dominated to screen. We decided autograph all of the papers as a souvenir of our ordeal. My autographed page can be found on the Media webpage.
After breakfast we all returned to TWA’s hangar 12 - The Rose Room, and shared our experiences. Starting with Captain Bill Kinkead - each told their own story. Listening as each crewmember related their feelings, thoughts and reactions was mesmerizing. Everyone seemed to have put their own safety aside - getting 273 passengers (90% non-English speaking) to safety was the priority. We laughed at how many had actually fought with the passenger with the antler hat. How we fought to keep passengers from evacuating with their “precious” carry-on luggage. And were set to tears when some of the crew spoke of the two unaccompanied children - should we go back and look, did they make it off safely - had they been found. Front page of “Evacuate” the newspaper article titled; “The Great Escape” has pictured Sheri Bencini caressing the head of one of the un-accompanied children. The child was in the arms of a passenger. The child was safe.
Having listened, in awe, we all realized each of us had found some way to make a difference - TWA could hold its head up high - TWA had given each of us the tools to work with. TWA had always had the highest standards in safety training of any airline.
The crash was on a Thursday - Eunice, Marilyn and I would not be going home until Saturday. We had to meet with TWA, FAA, NTSB and IFFA. Each of us had to tell again repeat the details of our experience. My husband Don flew out from San Francisco on Friday and was given the task of getting the three of us back home safely Saturday.
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A Little Trivia
May 1992, layover in Cairo - a toothless old Egyptian man had read my palm (he did not speak English) he told me that a big event was about to happen. It did. When I tried to contact my family - my mother was watching the Phil Donahue show - they announced a TWA plane crash at Kennedy - my mother, convinced that I was still in Europe, decided to take the dog for a walk - she missed my phone call. Poor dog, Mother refused to walk the dog for an entire week. I was finally able to make contact with my mother-in-law. I explained what had happened and asked her to let the family I was ok. She said she would share the news then asked if TWA had made sure everyone had decent meal (this is a woman who raised 9 children - food was always a priority).
My husband, who I did not make contact with until later that evening, began the telephone conversation by telling me about his day - I politely listened for about 10 minutes periodically trying interject to tell him I had been in a plane crash. Not really hearing me, His response, “No problem. Your brother called and left a message about some mechanical and could you pick up some Swiss Army Knives on your next trip to Switzerland. You’ll be home tomorrow”? Finally he glanced at the TV and saw the local news footage of a TWA L1011 burning in the field - a light bulb moment . Now it was my turn to talk. He was on the next flight to New York. Four years later
Don also flew to New York July 19, 1996, two days after TWA Flight 800 fell into the Atlantic Ocean. He was there to meet me as my Rome flight landed at Kennedy Airport. Doomed Flight 800 was supposed to land in Paris and continue on to Rome, it was my crew that was to bring fallen the 747 back to New York - it never happened. And I never returned to Rome again
Conclusion: Months and Years Later
What happened to the crew? Of the 6 Flight Attendants seated in the aft section of the aircraft - only Eunice Wong continued with her career as a Flight Attendant. To my knowledge Chuck Long, our Flight Engineer is probably the only crew member left flying. Captain William Kinkead flew for a year or so longer then retired. The rest of us continued our careers with TWA until American Airlines entered the scene. On July 2, 2003 American Airlines furloughed the last of the TWA Flight Attendants - and slowly stripped all of us our benefits and retirement . Over 4,000 of us lost our careers, while American Airlines grimly dismantled one of the finest airlines in aviation history. TWA had the finest safety record in the airline industry. Mu own opinion: American Airlines lost the best airline employees in aviation history.
Not an overly religious person, I somehow have to believe there was a higher power involved in TWA’s Flight 843 miracle. For whatever reason I was suppose to be on Flight 843, July 30, 1992. Maybe to share our story and keep the grand name of TWA alive.
Update November 10, 2006
On July 1, 2003 I was furloughed, along with the remaining 1400 TWA Flight Attendants. Devistated by the loss of my airline and career and disparity of treatment by American Airlines, I knew I had to survive once again. I decided to return to college to pursue my real passions - video production, web and graphic design.
Seven years later my websites and documentaries opened doors I never knew existed. I have become an activists in Petaluma's local community, fighting outrageous development, asphalt plants, and busy campaigning in local elections. Moving on. Its not easy, and not without a lot of tears shed for a grand airline I was so proud to be part of.
My own goal is to someday produce the TWA story, about the TWA Flight Attendants and their remarkable roll in aviation history. Needless to say I would also like to produce the remarkable story of TWA's Flight 843.