As Delta Air Lines Flight 191, a wide-bodied Lockheed L-1011 with 160 aboard, approached Dallas/Fort Worth Airport last Friday, the north Texas sky abruptly turned dark gray. Clouds welled up and burst into showers, and lightning bolts zigzagged menacingly. A meteorologist later estimated that a downdraft was rushing through the thunderstorm cell at 80 m.p.h. The huge plane descended, but suddenly plunged belly first to the ground a mile north of Runway 17 at the nation's largest airport (roughly the size of Manhattan). The L-1011 bounced off the turf and came down again a quarter-mile away, grazing one car on busy State Highway 114 and demolishing a second car, whose driver was decapitated. The plane skipped across a grassy field, ricocheted off a water tower, then burst into flames as it slid across the tarmac. "It was like a wall of napalm," said Airline Mechanic Jerry Maximoff. The tail section, with one of the plane's three engines and the last ten rows of seats, was the only recognizable part of the wreckage.
Somehow 31 people, including three flight attendants, initially survived the impact and subsequent inferno. "It was all sunshine until we actually started coming down," said Jay Slusher, 33, a computer programmer who was going to catch another plane for his home in Phoenix. "Then the rain started, very heavy. It became so dark you couldn't even see out the windows. The ride got rougher and rougher. It seemed like there was something on top of the plane, pushing it to the ground. The pilot tried to pull out of it. The speed of the engines increased. We started rocking back and forth. Then we were tossed all around. I saw an orange streak coming toward me on the left side of the floor. I thought we were going to explode. At that point, I said, 'Well, it's all over.' The next thing that happened is that I ended up sitting in my seat on my side. I looked up and I could see the grass. I said, 'Thank you, Lord,' unbuckled my seat belt and jumped out."
Gilbert Green, 21, a football player at Florida State University, was sitting on the right side of the plane as the fire broke out. "It started to singe my arm," he recalled. "Right then the plane broke in half and I was shot out of the way of the fire. [The fuselage] broke off right in front of me. All the seats in front of me went the other way." Most of the survivors were in the smoking section. Said one: "That's the first time a cigarette ever saved my life." Even two dogs in the rear cargo section were saved.
Rescue workers toiled at first in a nearly horizontal driving rain. They placed yellow sheets over the dead, quickly assessed the severity of survivors' injuries and warned area hospitals by radio about what type of cases to expect. The Rev. Richard Brown, who was giving last rites to the victims, was startled when he saw the stomach of one, a baby, "going up and down." He baptized the infant instead and alerted medics, but the child later died. Most of the injured were taken by helicopter or ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where doctors had tried to save John F. Kennedy in 1963. Officials were heartened by the local response to appeals for blood donations. Some 1,500 people lined up to give.