One Year After Jetliner Fire, Memories Linger, Mysteries Remain

One year after she nearly died on a flaming jetliner at O’Hare, Kathy McLoyd says she still fears something will happen. 

“I didn’t die in an airplane,” she says. “I kind of cheated death, but I can’t get over this fear that it’s going to happen some other kind of way.” 

Kathy and her husband Peter were sitting in row 29 of American Airlines flight 383 last October 28, bound for Miami, when the right engine exploded on takeoff. With the right side of the aircraft engulfed in flames, the captain managed to stop on O’Hare’s runway 28 right, just as the giant jetliner reached takeoff speed. 

Had the explosion happened just a few seconds later, after the plane lifted off the runway, the results almost certainly would have been catastrophic. 

“There was an explosion, and then fire immediately,” Peter recalled. “You could tell it was pretty intense, and you could see it moving toward the rear of the plane.”

Inside the giant Rescue 1 firehouse in the center of the field, firefighters actually saw and heard the engine explode.

“You heard a big bang,” firefighter Bob Gembala told NBC5. “I just ran out the door, and jumped in my truck.” 

At that very minute, the firehouse’s red hotline from the control tower began to ring. Controllers declared a “crash alert” and stopped every airplane on the field, giving the O’Hare firefighters the run of the airport. 

“As soon as those doors opened, and I saw that big ball of smoke and flame, it was a first for me,” said fire captain Jonathan Ross. “When we arrived on scene, it was really burning!” 

Investigators would later learn that a fan disk inside the engine had flown apart, a catastrophe known as an uncontained engine failure. One piece had flown thru the wing, and ended up crashing though the roof of a cargo facility thousands of feet away. 

When that happened, it severed a fuel line. And with the wing loaded with 3,000 gallons of jet fuel, fire was gushing everywhere as the first crews arrived. 

“It was a flowing liquid fire, so the fire was burning as it was flowing out of the plane,” deputy commissioner Tim Sampey recalled. “You have a burning aircraft that is loaded with fuel, so the potential for explosion is enormous.” 

Inside the aircraft, Peter and Kathy McLoyd were scrambling for the exits with 159 other passengers, as fire roared outside. 

“I hear Peter like, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” Kathy said. “We gotta move!”

“I was thinking that we might not make it, that we probably were not going to make it,” her husband remembered. “Because I could see how fast the fire was moving to the back.”

Just ahead of them, an off-duty pilot managed to open the left over-wing exit. The National Transportation Safety Board says that door was the first to open, just ten seconds after the aircraft came to a stop.

“I really had doubts that we would get off the plane,” McLoyd says. “And you could hear the people around you screaming.” 

The McLoyds did escape the aircraft, along with all other passengers and nine crew members.

“I wasn’t scared when I was in the plane,” she says. “I was scared going down the slide!” 

Kathy McLoyd landed in a heap at the bottom and said she couldn’t get up. Her husband slid down just behind her, got her to her feet, and hurried her to edge of the runway as the fire roared behind them. 

At that point, he collapsed in the grass, doubling over in pain. Somehow, he had managed to lead his wife to safety, running on a broken foot. 

“I can still hear the sound,” he says. “What I imagine must have been fuel leaking and hitting the fire, pop—pop—pop!” 

Official reports say the last person off the plane escaped just 2 minutes and 21 seconds after it stopped rolling. 

For the O’Hare firefighters on scene, who train for such an event every day, it was their first real aircraft fire. 

“The entire staff out here at O’Hare had just finished this training to the exact letter, with the same incident that just happened with the aircraft engine fire,” says fire instructor Kevin Murphy. “So when our members got to the scene, we fought it just like we trained.” 

The incident is still under investigation. The engine in question, a General Electric CF6 80C2, is a workhorse for the world’s jet aircraft. Preliminary reports point to cracks radiating from anomalies in the metal of the stage 2 fan disk which failed. That disk is about 2 feet in diameter, but when it flew apart, the shrapnel flew out at enormous speed. 

Other disks in similar GE engines have suffered failures in the past, but this was the very first explosion involving that stage 2 disk. Investigators grew so concerned, they actually tracked down an aircraft containing the only other disk from the same metal casting as the part which failed in Chicago. 

But that disk passed inspection. 

GE spokesman Rick Kennedy says a similar call went out to examine all stage 2 disks in all CF6-80 C2 engines in service during routine maintenance. All appeared normal. 

A final report on the crash is expected from the NTSB early next year. 

In the meantime, the McLoyds have moved on. Peter still has trouble with his foot, and receives treatment for PTSD. Both have flown again, but say they find it difficult. 

“It gets a little easier,” he says. “I don’t think takeoffs and landings will ever be the same.”

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