Rockies radio announcer reflects on surviving United plane crash 30 years ago

DENVER -- It's hard to know how you'll spend what should be the final moments of your life.

"First thing I thought was a bomb has gone off. I really did. I thought a terrorist had planted a bomb, it had been detonated, and we started to drop," Jerry Schemmel, 59, told FOX31.

Thirty years ago, Schemmel was aboard United Flight 232. It departed Denver's Stapleton Airport for Chicago O'Hare on the afternoon of July 19, 1989. An hour into the flight, an engine blew and pieces of metal pierced the plane's hydraulic systems, making the aircraft nearly impossible to control.

Forty-five minutes later, the DC-10 crashed in a corn field just shy of the Sioux City, Iowa airport. The fiery landing was captured on camera by a news photographer from KTIV-TV, and the unforgettable images were broadcast all over the world.

"Immediately inside the plane, complete chaos. First couple of seconds after we hit down, bodies are being thrown about in the plane. Some were still strapped in their chairs. The chairs had given and people were still in them being thrown. And smoke and fire and debris (filled the cabin) all in the first couple of seconds after we hit down," Schemmel said. "(We) finally came to a halt and I was hanging upside down. We flipped over and slid almost a mile upside down and backward, at least the piece that I was in."

Miraculously, Schemmel was one of 185 people who survived the crash. And he vowed in the moments before impact to help anyone he could.

"There was a woman sitting in front of me who had a 2-year-old boy, he's 18 months of age. And I told her at one point a few minutes before we hit, I said, 'You're going to be my priority when we stop, I'll make sure that you and your son are OK.'  And when I was making my way to the back of the plane, I encountered her, and she didn't have her son. And she refused to get out of the plane without her son. And I said, 'I'll find your son if you'll leave.'  And she didn't say anything. She left. She went out of the plane. And I never did find the child. He died in the crash. They say he died instantly upon impact, being thrown from his mother's grasp," Schemmel said, choking back tears.

The child was one of more than 50 kids on the flight that day. United was running a "children's day" promotion, allowing kids to fly for just a penny. Some infants didn't have their own seats. They were sitting in their parents' laps. And on impact, they were thrown all over the cabin.

Even as Schemmel finally found his way out of the burning plane, a child drew him back in.

"I took a couple steps in the cornfield and heard a baby crying back inside the wreckage, and realized... (it) turned out to be 11 months old, a girl, trapped inside an overhead bin. She'd been thrown into an overhead bin, it had closed and locked on her, and now we're upside down. And so once I figured out what was happening it was easy to get to her. I just opened the overhead bin and scooped out and got off the plane the second time," Schemmel said.

Flying is still a part of Schemmel's life, even 30 years later. As the radio play-by-play announcer for the Colorado Rockies, he flies everywhere the team flies. But he doesn't fear it anymore. The crash brought him closer to God, and faith has taken away the worry.

"I see God telling me, 'Jerry, I finally got your attention. It took 30 years and a plane crash where people died around you to get your attention, but I finally got it, and I appreciate you coming on board with me,'" Schemmel said.

A week ago, Schemmel, who's an avid bicyclist, rode 112 miles to Colorado Springs and back. It's a yearly ritual for him. He rides a mile in honor of every passenger who did not make it off flight 232 that day.

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

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