LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Next June will mark 20 years since an American Airlines flight from Dallas crashed in Little Rock, killing 11 people on board. We caught up with survivors of the crash to ask, “Where are we now?”
Flight 1420 was the last leg for the Ouachita Singers from Ouachita Baptist University. They were coming home after touring through Germany.
“It kept getting delayed and delayed for weather,” said Jon Merryman, who was 20 years old at the time. “Finally they told us to get up and get on the plane, we're taking off and we barely had time to find our seats."
Misha Parker was 21 years old when the plane crashed. She said that you could tell things weren't going well while she was on the flight.
“Misha woke me up and I remember the pilot saying, ‘There’s quite an airshow. If you look out your window you can see the lighting.’ He didn't sound worried, so I really wasn’t," said Dr. Dave Ozmun, who was on the trip to photograph and record the singers.
As they were landing on the runway, they said they remember that the plane wasn’t slowing down.
“There was a moment where he tapped the brakes and it felt like we just kept on going after that," said Parker.
“As we were going down on the runway, the left wing burst into fire and that’s where my focus was," said Ozmun.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the storm caused the plane to overrun the runway, crashing through structures, a fence and into a floodplain.
“I put my head down and when I lifted my head up it was all fire around me cause my seat was over the gas tank," said Merryman.
Luckily, Merryman was pulled out. Ozmun and Parker also quickly escaped the burning plane.
“Dr. Ozmun is the reason I’ve had 20 years of life. He opened the emergency exit and jumped out the plane and looked back at me and told me to follow him," said Parker.
The singers were just a few of the 145 people on board. A memorial still sits at the Little Rock airport for the captain and 10 passengers who were killed.
With the Ouachita singers, James Harrison, a singer, and Rachel Fuller, the director’s daughter, both died.
NTSB eventually reported the cause was due to the decision to land in the storm and failure to ensure that the spoilers had extended after touchdown. NTSB added that the crew felt pressure to land under time constraints.
"The main problem was that we were being dispatched from a radar with a 10-minute delay, so when they told us ‘If we leave now we'll make it,’ we landed in the middle of the storm," said Merryman.
The accident led to 17 safety changes to the Federal Aviation Administration and two to the National Weather Service. One, the FAA now practices dual crew member confirmation that the spoilers have been armed and deployed, plus now auto brakes are recommended when landing in wet conditions. When it comes to weather, updated systems allow air traffic controllers and flight crews to see weather in near real time.
"There were other minor changes. The carpet was flammable so as soon as the fire broke out, everything was on fire, so now all interiors are flame retardant," said Merryman.
“The technology is so much better now than it was then, that if they had access on that night to what you can see now, the decisions would have been handled differently," said Parker.
As the FAA and NWS adjusted, survivors faced adjustments of their own.
"Some wounds you cannot see from the outside and that was okay," said Parker. “That first year I think I was just almost like a zombie. I was just going through the motions.”
“I don’t think I had as much of a difficulty as my wife did because she didn't know what happened," said Ozmun.
They all believe it’s also changed them for the better.
“We’ve been uniquely equipped to fulfill some very specific callings because of that experience,” said Parker. “I teach some kids who really struggle with trauma and I feel like I can understand that."
None of these survivors will ever take life for granted. Nearly 20 years later, they choose not to dwell on Flight 1420. Instead, they thank God for their lives, while remembering those whose lives ended too soon.
“James would be a year older than me now and I just wonder the person he would have been," said Parker.
“I walk by the amphitheater every day and I will look to see the plaque and see Rachel’s name, see James and Ouachita Singers. I make a point to do that," said Ozmun.
The OBU survivors are planning a reunion on the day of the twentieth anniversary, June 1, 2019.