Denver flight attendant still in the air, 30 years after surviving fiery plane crash

GOLDEN, Colo. -- Thirty years after they nearly died in a plane crash, a group of survivors gathered in Golden Friday night to remember those who didn't make it out alive.

The men and women were among the 185 people who walked away from the wreckage of United Flight 232. The crash killed 112 passengers.

The anniversary gathering was held at the home of Susan White. She was a rookie flight attendant at United when she boarded the DC-10 at Denver's Stapleton Airport on July 19, 1989, bound for Chicago O'Hare.

About an hour into the flight, she heard a thunderous explosion. The plane suffered a catastrophic failure in its tail engine, and pieces of the engine fan disc ripped apart the plane's hydraulic systems, making the aircraft nearly impossible to control. The captain was forced to make an emergency landing in a corn field just shy of the airport in Sioux City, Iowa.

"There was a huge ball of fire immediately as soon as we landed and I calmly just said to myself, 'I'm burning to death. That's how I'm dying,'" White told FOX31.

To this day, the flight number is etched in her mind.

"I see that number everywhere, 232. I wake up in the middle of the night and I see that number, during the day I look at my phone and it's 2:32. I'll go to send a text to my mother and it's 2:32," White said.

From the time the engine blew to the time of the crash landing, she and the others had 45 minutes to prepare to die.

"I started assessing my life. I imagined my pastor announcing my death in church. I thought about all the friends I had met throughout my whole life and I was never going to see them again. Thought about my family especially, and how sad my parents were going to feel losing a child," White said.

What made the crash even more tragic is that there were so many kids on board United Flight 232. They were running a special that day called United "children's day," allowing kids to fly for a penny. There were 52 kids on board, including toddlers sitting in their parents' laps.

When the plane crashed, it split in to pieces and filled with flames and smoke. Eleven children were among the dead. But somehow, White made it out alive.

"The tail where I was, we broke off and then started tumbling and we violently tumbled down the tarmac. Pieces of metal were ripping apart the airplane and flying around  I had my hands over my head, I had my eyes open, because I wanted to see what was coming at me. And then it stopped and I couldn't believe I was alive," White said. "I finally released my seat belt and got out, and I looked around and then I saw the big gaping hole (in the fuselage)."

First responders told White she was one of only eight or so people in the back of the plane who lived through the crash.

"And then, later, people started coming out of the cornfield. And more survivors. And it was just the greatest miracle ever," she said.

To this day, White stays in touch with other survivors and the families of those killed. And to this day, believe or not, she is still a flight attendant.

"There are a lot of people who can't believe I went back to work, and they'll tell me they would've quit. But I was so young at the time, I was 25 and I loved my job. And I thought, 'If I let that defeat me, I'll let so many other avenues defeat me.' So I pushed on and went back. And I'm so glad that I did," White said. "I feel there is a purpose, and I'm so grateful to be alive."

To learn more about the safety issues onboard Flight 232, and hear the stories of survivors, watch this FOX31 web special, “Retro Colorado: Flight 232.”

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