Commentary

Saunders: Families hope memorial will mark American Eagle crash of 20 years ago

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2014 

“You’re gonna have to give me a minute,” David Ferrell said in between sobs. “It’s been 20 years, bud, and it’s still kinda hard to talk about.” (Sob.)

Don’t worry, pal, I told him. It’s still kinda hard to hear. (Sob.)

Ferrell was telling me about the night nearly 20 years ago when the Triangle community, led by people like him, rallied to help victims of an airplane crash near Cary that killed 15 people, injured five and permanently scarred way more than that.

He was a volunteer firefighter – “I was assistant chief or captain: I can’t remember what I was,” he said – and one of the first people on the scene after American Eagle Flight 3379 crashed on Dec. 13, 1994, around 6:40 p.m.

“I was eatin’ supper that night when I got the call,” he said. Within minutes, he was out of the door and en route to somewhere. He wasn’t exactly sure where.

‘Just by chance’

It was hard getting to the site where the commuter flight from Greensboro to Raleigh went down. Rescuers had to slog their way through woods and darkness until electrical generators could be set up.

“We found them just by chance,” Ferrell told me. “The first person I saw when I got there was Lauren.”

Of course, he didn’t know her name at the time. All he knew was that a badly injured woman was trying to ascend a hill.

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, can you tell me your name?’ She said, ‘Lauren Anderson.’ I said ‘Can you tell me where you’re from?’ She said she was from Stony Brook, N.Y. I took my fire coat off and put it around her. I’ll never forget it. (Sobs) She was grabbing a’hold of trees and limbs and pulling herself like a bullfrog you’ve cut the back legs off of.”

Lauren’s back was broken, along with one leg and several other bones.

“I got her situated, propped up against a tree,” he said. “It was one of these raw, cold, typical December nights. She was wet; she was cold. (Sob) I said, ‘Sweetheart, you hang tight. You’ve made it through the roughest part of it. We’re not leaving.’ 

‘What everybody did’

Ferrell then rushed off to see if he could help other passengers and crew members.

“He told us,” said Marie Anderson, Lauren’s mom, “that he never would’ve left her if he’d known she was only 18.”

Ferrell remembered that. “That night, I couldn’t tell if she was 18 or 38,” he said. “It ain’t what I did. It’s what everybody did. One party couldn’t have done nothing without the other party right there beside him.”

I spoke with Anderson last week as she talked about plans for a memorial for the passengers and crew who lost their lives, for survivors like her daughter and for the people who love them.

“My husband and I, we are survivors, too,” she said. So is, she said, “anybody who is a close friend or family member who went through that whole incident. … We only had to sit in the airport for four hours” to find out what had happened to Lauren, Anderson said, “and it was awful, just awful, not knowing. What these poor families in Malaysia are going through. …”

Marie and Richard Anderson were living in New York in 1994 and were awaiting their daughter’s arrival home for Christmas vacation after she’d made her flight connection in Raleigh. They’ve since retired and moved to just outside Asheville, to be near their now-married daughter.

“I was kind of hoping that one of the people who lost family would spearhead this, but nothing was happening,” she said.

“Carolyn Coarsey, who is the head of the Family Assistance Foundation, talked with me and said ‘Marie, we really need to try to get a memorial.’ About three years ago, I started talking with David Ferrell – he really is just a wonderful man – to find a site for the memorial. Now, the crash scene has been developed into a subdivision, but the Town of Cary is building a new park about a half-mile away from the crash scene, and they were very receptive.”

American Eagle, Anderson said, has donated $25,000. They still need about $18,000 more so they’ll be able to plant 15 trees in memory of the victims who died, five shrubs for those who were injured and to maintain a sitting area.

Anderson also said she hoped there would be enough money left to pay for transportation for any family members who couldn’t afford to come to the dedication.

They hope, she said, to reach people who survived or who had relatives and friends in the crash. “We want to add them to our mailing list so they can be invited to the dedication,” Anderson said. The website address for the foundation is www.fafonline.org.

Firefighter Ferrell said his wife and he, after penetrating the protective maze set up around survivors by the National Transportation Safety Board, eventually found Lauren in Duke University Medical Center. “We took her some flowers, a card and a big teddy bear. We cultivated a friendship. You don’t have to print this, but I can tell you how God works in people’s lives.

“When Lauren got married, my wife and I went to the wedding in Asheville, and we became good friends with her and her family,” he said. “Our little girl was born in Mission Hospital in Asheville about 10 or 11 years after the plane crash, and we didn’t know a soul. It was our first baby, and we didn’t know anybody there – but Lauren and her family. They sat with us, they fed us, they brought food to us at the hospital.

“Who would’ve ever thought that, 11 years after that plane crash,” he said, “that it would come full circle and I’d need something from them? That’s just how the Lord works.”

It’s hard to tell, just from listening to them laud each other, whether the Ferrells care about the Andersons more or the Andersons care about the Ferrells more.

What’s not hard to tell is that both families have been a blessing to each other since the tragedy of American Eagle Flight 3379.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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