Medic reflects on 1987 plane crash that killed 156

The plane clipped a light pole and crashed on take off, killing all six crew members, 148 of the 149 passengers on board and two people on the ground


Samuel Dodge
MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

DAVISON, Mich. — Andy Graves spent two and a half hours on the site of the Northwest flight 255 crash in Romulus nearly 33 years ago.

Then a paramedic with Huron Valley Ambulance in Ypsilanti, he had to check on each of the people who died that Aug. 16 night in 1987.

The grassy banks of Middlebelt Road near I-94 were scorched black. Fiery wreckage, luggage and bodies were strewn throughout the roadway. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
The grassy banks of Middlebelt Road near I-94 were scorched black. Fiery wreckage, luggage and bodies were strewn throughout the roadway. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

The plane, headed from Detroit Metro Airport for Arizona, clipped a light pole and crashed on take off, killing all six crew members, 148 of the 149 passengers on board and two people on the ground. It remains the fourth deadliest crash since commercial airline travel began.

The grassy banks of Middlebelt Road near I-94 were scorched black. Fiery wreckage, luggage and bodies were strewn throughout the roadway. Graves knew they were beyond help.

“It’s hard to put into words what that feels like anytime a first responder has to walk away from an individual we can’t help,” said Graves, an Ann Arbor native who’s now an EMS dispatcher in Pontiac. “When it’s 156 people, I literally can’t put into words what it feels like in terms of the emptiness it leaves you with.”

The sights and the feeling from that night haunted Graves for more than 25 years, he said. But he found healing through writing music.

He penned the single “August Rain”, which was released for streaming under his contemporary Christian rock band Pivotal Awakenings. It became available for purchase on Jan. 20 on SpotifyApple Music and CD Baby.

The single is the culmination of three decades of “a mental health journey,” Graves said. It took 20 years before he could even visit the crash memorial on Middlebelt Road, as he suffered from PTSD from the experience.

“My only memory of the incident was the crash,” he said. “And then on the 20th anniversary, I went to the memorial. That turned out to be the best thing I ever did for my mental health, because I started having positive experiences related to the crash through meeting and talking with family members and other first responders."

The words “Their spirit lives on” are inscribed on the memorial. Healing from grief through faith inspired the song’s lyrics, such as, “Time will never erase, Your presence in this place, And the miracle of One, reminds us to be strong.”

“I was writing from the perspective of a first responder, but also from the perspective of anybody else touched by the crash,” Graves said. “I tried to put into words that, yes, loved ones are gone, but none of us forget. We just remember.”

Graves, who’s also a retired Flint Fire Department battalion chief, collaborates with vocalist Mindi Odom. They first performed together as part of the church band at Davison Free Methodist Church.

When Graves reached out to Odom to perform “August Rain,” she connected with the lyrics about the crash’s lone survivor, Cecelia Cichan.

“I was 4, her age, when the accident happened,” Odom said. “The Miracle of One (lyric) in the song can signify...how much of a miracle she was and how she offered a glimmer of hope in such a horrible tragedy.”

With Odom’s lead vocals and Graves’ work on guitar, the duo have landed representation from producer Marshall Block and Real II Reel Productions in Fenton.

“It was at our first session on Sep. 17 to start recording ‘August Rain’ that (Block) suggested Mindi and I start songwriting together,” Graves said. “That suggestion has turned into a life-changing musical adventure for us.”

At the end of the day, Graves said his “August Rain” experience is about using charity to continue turning the crash into a less painful memory for him and others.

All of the song proceeds will go to the Wayne/Westland branch of the Salvation Army. Donations will also be accepted on the organization’s website.

Graves decided to donate the proceeds to the organization after discussions with Tony Zanger, who lost younger brother Michael and his then-fiance Hollins Langton in the crash.

“That (Salvation Army) shows up every Aug. 16 for our memorial vigil,” Zanger said. “They serve refreshments, help us clean the site and never ask for a dime.”

Zanger has seen Graves’ resilience grow in the last three decades.

“Andy is a genuine guy,” Zanger said. “Like other responders, he came little by little. They felt sorry they couldn’t do more...but they belong with us.”

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©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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