By Nick Palmer
It’s 4:00 p.m. on Friday, July 9, 1982, and a storm has rolled over New Orleans and the surrounding area. Pan Am Flight 759 prepares to take off from the New Orleans International Airport, en route to San Diego, California. Residents of the Morningside subdivision in Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, are returning home from a long work week and preparing for the weekend. What the residents of Kenner and the 146 passengers aboard the Boeing 727 do not know is that in nine minutes, everything will change.
At 4:09 p.m., Flight 759 took off into the growing storm. Residents of the Morningside subdivision would soon report seeing a large aircraft struggle to gain altitude. As it soared overhead, skimming rooftops of nearby houses and businesses, the aircraft struck a tree and then barreled toward the ground. Residents will later tell their stories of a deafening sound, like a tornado, passing over their houses and of fuel spraying from the aircraft’s wing after removing the top of the tree. Sadly, many will not get the chance to tell their story.
As the aircraft crashed into the ground, its wings were ripped from the fuselage, rupturing its fuel tanks and sending more than 8,000 gallons of fuel into the air. The fuselage (main body) of the aircraft broke apart on impact. Still, the aircraft surged forward, even as the tail section folded over the front of the aircraft. The ensuing scene proved to be a “worst-case scenario” for all of the 26 government agencies and 27 private partners activated to respond.
At 4:13 p.m., the first fire/rescue units arrived on scene. Engine 2, Engine 3, and the Snorkel from the Kenner Fire Department entered the area to find a scene straight out of Hollywood. Fuel and fire from the 171,000-pound aircraft filled a five-block area. Pieces of the aircraft were scattered throughout the area. Eight homes were ablaze; three were completely destroyed by the impact. A total of 15 homes and 18 vehicles, spread over six blocks, had sustained damage.
The first large obstacle the responders faced was access. With debris, fuel, flames, body parts, and vehicles blocking their path, emergency crews began an uphill battle for control. Additional units (Engines 311 and 341, Ladder 315, and Rescue 332) soon arrived from the nearby District 3 Volunteer Fire Department. The attack was launched from six sides; some of the damaged structures were still not accessible. As crews began their assault on the fires, it soon became apparent that none of the 146 passengers on board Flight 759 would survive. Given the devastation and number of homes destroyed or involved in fire, it was also evident that there would be fatalities on the ground as well.
The second obstacle encountered was control. As agency after agency flooded onto the scene, the lack of planning and cooperation among them added to the confusion of an already impossible situation. Many police and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel from surrounding communities rushed to the scene and became onlookers when their services could not be used. Instructions and orders flowed from every direction as attempts to establish a semblance of order became more and more difficult. Lacking a sufficient command post and staging area, the scene became congested and chaotic. Agencies were reluctant to assume overall command of the scene because of the difficulty of the job.
Another difficulty responders faced was the mounting stress associated with such an overwhelming and brutal scene. Crews worked into the night. Falling rain simultaneously aided and hampered their efforts to extinguish the fires and search damaged homes for survivors. As the sheer devastation and gruesomeness of what they were seeing began to work on everyone’s psyche, crews became ecstatic when their efforts yielded a positive result. Among the rubble of one of the homes, rescue personnel rescued an 18-month-old child, who had been shielded by her mother’s lifeless body. It was a ray of sunshine in the darkest day of their lives.
Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into long hours, and long hours turned into difficult days. Decisions turned from life and death to scene security, victim identification, and cleanup.
Responders now had to overcome the final hurdle, the aftermath. It took days before the final body count was determined and the 156 victims were identified and processed. Local inmates were used for collection and removal duties. Body parts were stored in refrigerated trucks.
The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), along with state and local law enforcement began their exhaustive investigation. Parts of the aircraft were recovered and moved to a site where the reconstruction would take place. Federal and state environmental teams sampled, tested, and planned for contamination removal. Heavy equipment rolled in as damaged homes were demolished and debris was removed. Over the next six days, law enforcement arrested eight looters and gawkers who had made their way into the area.
The official cause of the crash was a microburst of air from the incoming storm that kept the 727 from gaining its required altitude. The tragedy would have been avoided if the takeoff had occurred one minute before or after.
The crash of Pan AM Flight 759 is one example of how quickly things can change should an aircraft crash in your district. The Kenner Crash, as it was later called, is not an isolated incident; there have been many like it throughout the country. Just one of the more than 19,000 flights that occur in the United States daily, could cause you, your department, and your community to experience the same devastation. The struggles encountered by emergency responders, federal and state agencies, and private partners on that day and for weeks afterward are not unique. Access, control, stress, and aftermath are problems we all would face if such a crash happened in our district. The good news is that these problems can be minimized with the proper preparation, training, management, and intervention.
Nick Palmer is the ARFF program manager at the Louisiana State University Fire & Emergency Training Institute.