Beautiful days have a way of changing. Clear blue skies sometimes end with rain clouds, or even thunder and lightning.
Sometimes, like on Sept. 8, 1994, a day can turn disastrous in less than a minute, delivering consequences that last decades.
On that sunny Thursday, USAir Flight 427 from Chicago crashed while on approach to Pittsburgh International Airport. All 127 passengers as well as the crew of five lost their lives instantly at 7:03 p.m. when the Boeing 737 rammed into a ravine in Hopewell Township, Pa.
“I never came into work thinking something would happen, but we all knew from our training that there were hundreds of flights every day and that odds were that something could happen,” said Brian Stashak, Vice President of Terminal Operations for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, who was a gate agent for USAir at the time.
“I never thought it would be something like that.”
“I never thought it would be something like that – something just dropping out of the sky like that on a day as beautiful as today. There were no storms, it wasn’t like the runway was covered with ice, but a beautiful day when your guard was down and everything was going smoothly.”
Kurt Sopp, Senior Security Advisor for the Airport Authority, was sitting in a barber’s chair in Ross Township, Pa., about halfway through a haircut, when his pager started to vibrate just after 7 p.m. He took it out of his pocket.
“All I saw was ‘333,’ which was the code for a crash,” he said.
Sopp excused himself and went to his car to retrieve his cell phone and make a call that confirmed his worst fears. He immediately left for PIT.
“By the time I got there, incident command had been established. It had already been determined that there were no survivors,” he said.
A Long Investigation
For the next several weeks, Sopp represented the airport while working long days with the National Transportation Safety Board, helping investigators review information, interviews and evidence.
“For 14 days, I looked like a punk rocker,” said Sopp about his unfinished haircut. “But that’s the way it was. We didn’t have the time to take care of those types of things.”
While families and friends of those who died that day grappled with their losses – and undoubtedly still do today – the NTSB launched what would become the longest investigation in its history, ultimately coming to the conclusion, four-and-a-half years later, that a malfunctioning rudder led to the crash.
Sopp, who will be retiring at the end of this week after 39 years at the airport, recalled how the NTSB would break off into different groups to study eyewitness statements, wreckage and other information.
“It was fascinating to watch them work. The groups would come back in the afternoon and begin to systematically rule out possible causes,” he said. “They would listen to the cockpit recordings to decipher sounds in the background. There was so little left they had to use everything they had.”
The crash site was so devastating, it was declared a biological hazard, Sopp said. Responders in the days after were required to wear hazmat suits and be inoculated for hepatitis – the first time anything like that had been required.
While the event resulted in tragedy for many, it changed the industry, leading to safety enhancements for first responders, more personalized assistance for families of crash victims and of course, changes to correct the flaw in the 737’s rudder control system.
‘You Didn’t Think, You Just Did’
While responders headed to the call, USAir employees were doing their best with customers in the terminal.
“I was working at Gate A11, and that flight was scheduled to come in on the B Concourse,” Stashak recalled. “Someone said, ‘Hey, I just heard a plane went down.’ After that, we got a call at the gate, and they told us there was a crash and we were told to not say anything and to be calm and keeping doing what we were doing.”
They did just that. They kept calm and shifted into roles for which they were trained in such instances, Stashak said.
“I helped other employees at other gates because they had to pull so many people away to handle the accident,” he said, adding that USAir employees dealt with the fallout of the crash for days, weeks and months after.
Airport Fire Lt. Erik Kelemen was on-duty as a firefighter for the airport at the time of the crash.
“As we were listening to it on the crash phone, you could tell something was wrong.”
“We responded like we always do – we ran out to the trucks,” he said. “But as we were listening to it on the crash phone, you could tell something was wrong because the air traffic controller on the line almost sounded like he was breaking up – as if he was in tears or confused or just couldn’t believe what he was telling us.”
Along with several other firefighters, Kelemen responded to the scene and assisted in putting the fire out, working until about 3 a.m. the next morning. He was then part of the 11-day recovery effort.
“That night I could tell you second by second everything I did,” he said. “The training we had at that point just made everything happen – it was like we were on autopilot. You didn’t think, you just did.”
‘I Was Very Young’
“It was a gorgeous day,” said Joan Stasiowski, Security Manager for the Airport Authority, looking out the window into a bright September sky from her office at the Airside Terminal of Pittsburgh International Airport. “Just like today.”
Stasiowski arrived to her job the next day as Administrative Assistant for the fire department. She was a new mother and had been working at the airport for two years.
“I was very young,” she recalled, adding that she kept asking Glade Knoch, then airport Fire Chief, if she could go to the site to help. “I was willing to do anything – hand out lunches. But he was very protective of me and wouldn’t let me go. As I typed horrific reports from the scene over the next days I realized why he wouldn’t send me.”
Like Stashak, Stasiowski has seen many employees who were working that day leave the industry. It has, no doubt, left a lasting impact on her and many others.
“The guys would come in from being at the site and it seemed that they just wanted a hug,” she said quietly. “Over the next few years you saw the changes. You saw how many of them struggled with personal issues. I’m proud to work at the airport. Those firefighters kept going back to the scene because they had a job to do – but they knew what was in store. How can you not be proud to work with people like that?”