Sole survivor of MD-80 crash speaks out

DETROIT — Cecelia Crocker’s body provides her with a constant reminder of the most traumatic event of her life — one that she doesn’t otherwise remember.

At only 4 years old, Crocker was the lone survivor of a 1987 plane crash that killed 154 people aboard and two on the ground near Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

In the new documentary, “Sole Survivor,” Crocker breaks her silence, discussing how the crash of the Phoenix-bound jetliner has affected her.

“I think about the accident every day. It’s kind of hard not to think about it when I look in the mirror,” she said. “I have visual scars. My arms and my legs. And I have a scar on my forehead.”

Crocker, 30, also sports an airplane tattoo on her left wrist.

“I got this tattoo as a reminder of where I’ve come from. I see it as — so many scars were put on my body against my will — and I decided to put this on my body for myself,” she says in the film.

“Sole Survivor” is expected to have its theatrical premiere and widespread release later this year. Advance preview screenings were set this week in Royal Oak, Mich., and May 30 in Minneapolis.

The filmmakers permitted The Associated Press to view the film ahead of the screenings.

The movie focuses on Crocker — known as Cecelia Cichan at the time of the crash — as well as three other “sole survivors” of plane crashes: George Lamson Jr., a then 17-year-old from Plymouth, Minn., who was aboard a Galaxy Airlines flight that crashed in Reno, Nev., in 1985; Bahia Bakari, a 12-year-old girl who lived through a Yemenia Airways flight that crashed near the Comoros Islands in 2009; and Jim Polehinke, the co-pilot of a 2006 Comair flight that crashed in Lexington, Ky.

It’s been more than a quarter-century since Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed in the Detroit suburb of Romulus. The plane was just clearing the runway at 8:46 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1987, when it tilted slightly. The left wing clipped a light pole, and the damaged airliner sheared the top off a rental car building.

The MD-80 left a half-mile trail of bodies, charred wreckage, magazines and trays of food along Middle Belt Road when it crashed.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the plane’s crew failed to set the wing flaps properly for takeoff. The agency also said a cockpit warning system did not alert the crew to the problem.

Crocker’s parents and brother were among those killed. They lived in Tempe, Ariz., at the time.

She was raised in Alabama by her aunt and uncle who shielded her from the media and others who sought to delve into her unique past.

Crocker said the enormity of what had happened didn’t really hit her for a while.

“When I realized I was the only person to survive that plane crash, I was maybe in middle school, high school, maybe, being an adolescent and confused,” said Crocker, who was interviewed by the film’s director, Ky Dickens, over 1.5 hours in Queens, N.Y., in September 2011. “So it was just extra stress for me. I remember feeling angry and survivor’s guilt. ‘Why didn’t my brother survive? Why didn’t anybody? Why me?’”

As for returning to the air, Crocker “feels fine flying and does so quite often,” Dickens said. “Flying doesn’t scare me. I have this mentality where if something bad happened to me once on a plane, it’s not going to happen again,” Crocker says in the film. “The odds are just astronomical.”

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