Airport, Delta Flight 191
August 2, 1985, 1805:58 Hours
Personal account of (then) Firefighter Paramedic,
Irving Fire Department
hot summer day in 1985 I was sitting outside of our
fire station number 6. This was an interesting station
at which to work. The location provided us with a
wide variety of calls. The proximity of a major highway
gave us major accident runs. This engine was also
first up to a rather large area of apartments. Probably
five to ten thousand people or more live in the apartments
in this engine’s area of responsibility. There
were fancy million dollar homes and there were run
down wood frame houses in an obvious low rent district.
We could see anything, on any given shift.
driver of our engine, Kerry Johnston, was not the
usual operator. The assigned driver was off duty
and Kerry was the usual firefighter. He was moved
up to drive for the day. This is why I was at this
station, they needed a firefighter. The two things
that I found most interesting about this station
was the training tower out back and the fact that
this fire engine was completely roofless. These fire
engines without tops on their cabs are often referred
to as “convertibles” but this is not
the case. To call them such would imply the possibility
of putting up some type of cover to protect the occupants
in the event of bad weather. No such possibility
existed. They were just open cabs. When it rained,
you got wet. This may have been why I was outside
the station watching the weather. Rain was predicted
for that evening and I could see dark clouds to the
E6 & Capt.
Thompson cir. 1985.
Notice the absence of a roof.
felt fortunate to be at Station Six. It was unusual
for me to either be off an ambulance or at least
not at a station with a reserve ambulance. As much
as I enjoyed being a paramedic I certainly appreciated
the break and the opportunity to fight some fire.
It felt strange to be at a station with only three
people. The stations I saw most of the time had two
to four times the personnel. I would be one of many
paramedics at these stations. At Station Six I was
the only paramedic so when we arrived at the scene
of a heart attack or automobile accident I was the
most trained. This made me feel really special about
the situation. After all, I had three years experience
as a paramedic, I had just about seen it all, right? (Little did I know how much more there was to see in the next twenty-five years, or even the next few minutes.)
Where we were the
sun was shinning and it was still a pretty day, when the call came in. “Possible structure
fire the area of Highway 114 and Freeport.” That
was at the north end of DFW airport. We were situated
at the southeast end of the airport. DFW has their
own fire department. If there really is a fire they
might be there to help us fight it as well. We would
most likely be the second engine arriving at this
scene. Station seven was much closer than we were
and they would bring an engine and a truck. Before
we were half way there we could see a large cloud
of black smoke. I was a little excited because if
was a fire it could be a big one. There were many
large buildings in this area. The dispatcher was
now trying to relay the fact they have received numerous
calls on this incident and the reports were conflicting.
Some people said there was some kind of explosion.
Others said it had something to do with lightning
striking a building. From where we were it had the
look of a brush fire. The smoke was not coming from
one source, but seemed to stretch across the horizon.
My captain asked the dispatcher if they wanted us
to return to the station for the A-Wagon. This is
a light pumper used for grass fires. They said for
us to continue as we were.
we turned onto Highway 114 we were suddenly hit with
a blinding rain and wind. The absence of a roof on
this vehicle made for an interesting few moments.
We were unable to see the road at all. When we pulled
up to where we thought we should be, we found, Engine
7, Truck 7 and a car that had been destroyed by some
kind of serious accident. We could not tell much
because of the rain and wind. At one point the wind
was so forceful it was all we could do to keep from
being blown away. We could not stand without the
aid of some structure or vehicle. As I grasped the
fire engine I swear I felt it move sideways. I was
told that some remains of the occupant of the car
had been found. But where was the truck that had
hit this automobile?
rain and wind began to let up and I thought there
might be more to this scene than we could see. I
climbed to the top of the fire engine and looked
around. That’s when I saw it. Your mind can
play tricks on you. If you are certain you cannot
see what you are seeing your mind will tell you it
is not there. I was looking out over DFW airport.
Just a few hundred yards from me was a blackened
part of an aircraft. My mind struggled to make sense
of this. What did this have to do with the traffic
accident where we were? The building is on the airport
property. At this end, were freight terminals. The
wreckage of the plane was not large. In my head I
pictured a small airplane carrying freight and few
passengers had crashed. I climbed down and told Captain
Thompson. His comment and decision was clear. He
said, “Then we need to be over there don’t
we?” He instructed Kerry to get us there. We
drove up the highway, crossed the median and returned
just a little closer to where I had seen the wreckage.
There was no way for the fire engine to drive into
the field so the Captain and I dismounted and started
for the shadow on foot.
entire time we walked my eyes were seeing things
that challenged my brain to make sense of. I had
no idea what to expect. We walked twenty yards apart
in what appeared to be water and fuel over knee deep.
There were metal automobile parts, camshafts, strewn
as far as I could see. When lightning struck the
ground a hundred yards west of Captain Thompson I
think we both questioned the wisdom of our situation.
By now I could see more of the airplane’s fuselage.
It was obvious to me it had been a small plane and
it’s dark color still told me it was some minor
fright carrier. Little did I know this had been a
Delta Airlines L-1011 capable of carrying over one
hundred and fifty passengers. As I approached what
I now know to be a water tank I was startled by seeing
something I had not expected, two people laying face
down in the water. I quickly turned them over to
see if there was anything I could do. They appeared
unharmed except for the fact they were dead. They
did not have any blood on them and most of their
clothes were missing. I am not saying they were nude.
They had on underwear at least but many of the people
I saw that day had somehow lost most of their outer
clothing. When I came upon these first two I had
to try to convince myself of the possibility of more
then just a few passengers might be on this airplane.
I approached the center of the crash area I saw people
walking. Some were injured, some seemed to be from
the terminals and businesses in the area. I looked
around and saw many people dealing with bodies. People
on backboards, people being helped to walk by others.
I suddenly realized what we were dealing with. My
thoughts flashed to the drill we had with DFW just
a few weeks before. The practiced drill had consisted
of setting up a field full of people pretending to
be injured. They had makeup on to simulate wounds
of every type. We learned how the airport fire department
had a supply trailer that would have a person in
it to dispense equipment. I thought about the need
to set up a triage, treatment, and transportation
area. Now questions came to mind. Did we have all
the patients located? How many paramedics did we
have on the scene? What do I do now? Where do I start?
did not have time to think about how little I knew.
People everywhere recognizing me as a rescuer and
a paramedic, came up to me and starting asking me
what to do. Like I had a clue. The first thing that
came to my mind was, locate patients. There was a
large ditch, the beginnings of a creek, just past
the tail section. I quickly organized the people
into a line to sweep just past the wreckage to look
for survivors. We found none. Suddenly I realized
I should be in triage. That’s where they would
need paramedics. I went to look for triage while
my captain started organizing rescue efforts for
people still trapped in the fuselage tail section.
found where patients on backboards were being brought.
There were about ten patients I could see laid out
in a row on the tarmac. Nearby there were a handful
of ambulances arriving and as I approached I saw
the supply trailer being parked. None of the patients
appeared to have been triaged or prioritized. Perhaps
they had been, I still don’t know. The minute
I was within sight of the patients, a man standing
over one of them called to me. He said, “Can
you help her?” I asked if anyone had examined
her yet. He indicated that she had not been seen
by anyone and again asked if I could do something.
I decided to at least triage her. All I wanted to
do was a quick exam, ABC’s and blood pressure.
She was breathing in a strange way. She did not appear
to have any obvious injuries but she would not respond
to my attempts to determine consciousness. I picked
up some of the medical equipment someone had scattered
about. When I took her blood pressure I was shocked.
It was sixty over zero! Did she have some internal
injuries? Was she bleeding inside? All I had intended
to do was triage her. I looked to my right and left.
Each patient by now had at least one person working
on him or her. Some patients were covered in blood
with broken limbs. Others, still alive, were burned
as I was taking this lady’s blood pressure
our engine driver found me. He had managed to bring
the engine in and was there to help. He had just
received his EMT certification and asked what he
could do to help. I told him there should be a trailer
on the other side of these ambulances. There he will
find someone dispensing supplies. “Tell him
you need an IV setup.” As Kerry disappeared
I proceeded to locate a vein. At that moment, Jack
Ayres, an attorney who also happens to be a paramedic
and works with Parkland Hospital approached me. I
had done some work for him on my part-time job so
he knew me by name. He called my name and asked if
I could give him an idea of the number of casualties.
I estimated there to be around two dozen. As it turns
out this was very accurate. He also asked if I was
talking about serious trauma. I thought, of course
major trauma. What he did not understand was I was
talking about total patients. There were many minor
injuries and some passengers with no injuries at
returned with the IV of Ringers and using the BP
cuff I started the line. I felt with a blood pressure
this low, this lady needed fluids. I asked Kerry
to run this liter of liquid into her as rapidly as
possible while I tried to start another IV. All the
time this man that had brought this woman to triage
stood by to help me. After starting the first IV
I couldn't decide what to do with the used IV needle.
Had we been on dirt I would have pushed it as far
into the ground as possible to prevent someone from
being stuck by it. I decided that under the backboard
might be a relatively safe place. In a very short
period of time we were ready to transport her. There
were suddenly more ambulances than we knew what to
do with. Paramedics from many cities were there to
help. A Dallas paramedic placed a cervical collar
on her. Others helped secure her in place. As we
began to lift the backboard this patient was on,
I needed to pause to remove the fourteen gauge IV
needle from my finger. The same needle I was concerned
about was now firmly embedded in the end of the ring
finger of my left hand. It was in the tip so it stuck
straight out parallel to the finger like a plastic
and steel extension. As I removed the needle, blood
poured from the perfectly round hole left there.
Four of us carried her to a waiting ambulance. We
placed her inside and I noticed the gentleman that
had been there for the entire time was getting in
the ambulance with her. I took his arm to inquire
as to why he was doing this. He asked if he could
go with her to the hospital. I asked him why he would
want to do this. "Do you know this lady sir?" I
asked. “She’s my wife.” He said.
I told him to get in and informed the paramedic in
the ambulance of the situation.
few days later this couple would be on network morning
television telling of their experience. He would
tell of how as the plane crashed they held on to
each other but when he opened his eyes she was gone.
He had located her by first finding her belongings.
According to Fox 4 this is a shot of the scene that day.
This is actually taken from a video they aired on the anniversary of that day.
That is me in the right hand corner, but I have no exact recollection of this moment.
placing our patient in the ambulance we readied ourselves
for more of the same but it was not to be. Very few
were found alive after that. Over one hundred and
twenty-five people lost their lives and their bodies
were all around us. A trauma doctor from Parkland
Hospital came up to me and expressed disbelief. Jack
Ayres compared it to scenes in Southeast Asia. Later
that night my wife would tell me of how she and my
five year old son were watching the coverage on television.
It was obvious to him she was looking for a glimpse
of me. All he could hear is how many had been killed
or injured. At one point he had to ask her,“Is
daddy dead?” Kerry and I stood in front of
the television later that night watching the news.
His words summed it up best. “I can’t
believe we were just there.”
later they would make a movie about Flight 191 called "Fire
and Rain". In it I played the part of an Irving
paramedic at the crash. I received forty-five dollars
a day and a meal for my "acting" ability.
In 2005 (20 years after the crash) I was asked to appear on "Good
Morning Texas" to talk about that day. It was during this interview that they actually reunited me, by phone, with the person I worked on that day.
At one time you could watch the entire interview, including footage of the crash scene, at:
Unfortunately it appears to no longer be available. If you find it somewhere, please let me know.
USA Today story.
more information on Delta Flight 191 go to: http://www.planecrashinfo.com/cvr850802.htm
a technical report of the cause of this crash you
can go to:
If any of these links do not work, please let me know through the contact page.