CINCINNATI – As the Air Canada DC-9 flew over Louisville, Kentucky, a life-or-death drama was unfolding.
Dinner had just been served, and the passengers – including Lisa Ehrich and her husband of Denton, Texas, and Graham Wright, Jeffrey Biteen and Ray Chalifoux of Canada, were relaxing.
Tom Giordano, a volunteer firefighter at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, was just passing the time.
Charlene Herwe and her pre-school daughter were visiting her husband, who worked at CVG.
It was June 2, 1983. Air Canada Flight 797, with 41 passengers and a crew of five, was flying at 33,000 feet from Dallas-Fort Worth to Toronto en route to Montreal. About 7 p.m., a passenger sitting in the back reported a strange odor to a flight attendant. In the next few minutes, smoke seeped under a lavatory door into the cabin. Crew members reported a fire to the captain, Donald Cameron, and at 7:07 he started a descent for an emergency landing at CVG.
SEE what happened in the video player above.
It was a race against a smoky or fiery death – complicated by the fact that the pilot was flying blind. The fire burned through electrical cables and knocked out virtually all of the cockpit instruments. The electrical trim system was disabled, too, meaning Cameron had to wrestle to control the descent as if he were flying a concrete mixer. Cameron had to put on goggles because someone left the flight deck door open and smoke that was filling the cabin had gotten into the cockpit, too.
And he had to rely on an air traffic controller at CVG, Gregory Karam, following the plane on radar, to tell him when to turn, when to descend and lead him to the airport.
Cameron couldn't find the airport at first, but Karam calmly talked him down.
The stakes were infinitely high. There were 46 lives on the line, and the only thing that was going to save them was getting them on the ground fast, before the thickening smoke or the fire spreading behind the cabin walls killed them.
WATCH several survivors in the hospital talk about their life-or-death experience below:
Thirteen minutes after he began the descent, Cameron landed the plane safely with no time to spare. The smoke in the cabin had gotten blacker and thicker, and people were choking, desperate to get off. Several survivors told WCPO that the passengers had stayed calm through the descent. They did as flight attendants instructed, taking seats in the front rows of the plane and breathing through wet towels as they nervously waited for the landing.
Right before that, Ehrich said she was starting to panic and gulp for air. She thought about dying.
"I thought this is what it feels like – I don't know what the word is – to possibly die of lack of oxygen," she said while being treated at Booth Memorial Hospital in Florence.
Wright later told WCPO in a hospital room interview that he was standing at the bulkhead, expecting people to rush the front door once the plane came to a stop, but the rush never came.
"That was the incredible thing," Wright said. "I was standing there expecting people to be pushing and trying to get through and there wasn't anything. That's why I got the feeling that a lot of the people who didn't get out were already asphyxiated."
Ehrich said she and her husband made it out a side exit.
"My husband lifted an emergency door that we were sitting next to and we crawled out onto the wing, thinking we were going to have some fresh air to breathe," she said. "Shortly after that, the whole wing and that half of the plane was engulfed in smoke. I turned and looked at the door we had just come out of and flames licked at the door.
"My thought was there would be rescuers there to help us get off the wing," she said. But there weren't, so her husband jumped to the ground and helped her and others down, she said.
Twenty-three passengers - half of the people on board – died. Investigators said some couldn't find the exits in the smoky darkness. By the time the plane landed, many couldn't have seen except by crawling, investigators said later. The victims were 21 Canadians and two Americans.
As far as Biteen was concerned, living or dying was a 50-50 proposition. He called himself one of the lucky ones.
"There's no doubt in my mind that one more minute and nobody would have got out," he said at a hospital where he was being treated for smoke inhalation. "I hate to think we were that close. And the ones who did get out, it was just by virtue of … we just were lucky. We were lucky. They got the plane down. They got it down as fast as they did and we were plain lucky."
Once Wright got out, he said, he ran to the edge of the tarmac, where others gathered. That's when it struck them.
"It wasn't until a couple of minutes later when we were all out that everybody realized there weren't nearly as many people on the ground as there were in the plane," Wright said. "I don't think anybody realized the extent of the deaths until a few minutes after."
Giordano ended up being one of the first responders. He wasn't prepared for such a disturbing sight.
He said bodies were "burnt to a crisp" in the seats.
"Looked like mannequins ..." he said. "Worst thing I ever seen."
Investigators later determined that a flash fire occurred 60 to 90 seconds after the escape doors were opened.
Herwe said she saw smoke and flames pouring out of the plane as it rolled to a stop not far from her. All the tires exploded, she said. She saw passengers slide down chutes and run from the danger. She saw fire crews spray the plane with foam.
"All I can say is the crew did one helluva job, excuse my language. They did. Whoever put that plane down did a damn good job, too. I didn't think anybody would get out, the way it was burning," she said.
Cameron, 51, almost didn't. While his co-pilot slipped out the cockpit window, Cameron passed out from exhaustion. Fire crews doused him with foam to bring him to, and he managed to drop out the window.
Cameron gave credit to Karam for saving so many lives.
"We were steered to the airport by the most capable air traffic control controller whose voice I have ever heard," said Cameron, who had nearly 13,000 flight hours.
Karam, though, didn't want to be singled out as a hero.
"Several other people were working on that shift," he said at a news conference. "They helped me with my other traffic. They assisted in the tower. We have people working at our facility that I admire very much. I'm here because I was put in that position when the flight arrived. It could have been at least a dozen or more others who could be giving this interview, and they'd be given the credit instead of me."
The initial NTSB report was critical of Cameron for taking too long to begin the descent and not asking crew members who inspected the fire about the exact nature of it. Cameron said he thought it was a garbage bin fire, and in fact, flight attendants told him at different times that they thought they had extinguished it.
The NTSB issued a revised report that still criticized Cameron for not inquiring about the nature of the fire.
The report said the fire started behind the lavatory wall and estimated that it burned undetected for about 15 minutes. It said smoke, fumes and hot gases moved forward between the airplane skin and the sidewall and ceiling panels.
The origin of the fire was undetermined, the NTSB said.
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