Empowered by tragedy

How the crash of USAir Flight 427, and the family survivors, changed airline safety

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

On the evening of Sept. 8, 1994, Janine Katonah was at home in Oak Park doing school work. She was "retooling" — planning to return to teaching, with her husband's encouragement. Joel Thompson had three children from his first marriage. Janine had two children from her first marriage. They had been married for 12 years.

Renee Thompson, Joel's daughter, called from Phoenix, where she lived. She heard on the car radio that there had been a plane crash.

Emily, Janine's daughter, a senior at OPRF High School at the time, came to the kitchen door. 

"Mom, where's Joel? Renee's on the phone — and she's crying."

When Janine got on the phone, Renee asked, "Janine, where's Dad?"

"He flew to Pittsburgh today," she replied.

And that, she said, was the beginning of the nightmare.

"I hyperventilated and my daughter ran next door," Janine said. "Our neighbor was a nurse and she came flying over. I don't remember much of any of it for days."

But she does remember the press.

All 127 passengers and five crew members of USAir Flight 427 died when the plane suddenly, inexplicably nosedived at 7:03 p.m. during its approach to Pittsburgh International Airport. The victims included the entire Weaver family — mom, dad, and three kids — who were returning from a family funeral in Naperville. Most of the passengers were from Pennsylvania, with a few from the Midwest, specifically the Chicago area, including Joel Thompson.

On the day of his memorial service, the press gathered outside the Church of the Brethren in Elgin where Janine and Joel had met. They were there partly because Janine was the first to file a lawsuit.

Her attorney, longtime Oak Parker Gene Armstrong, on the advice of Don Nolan's law firm (Nolan Law Group), told her she needed to take that step because otherwise the airlines weren't obligated to preserve the evidence.

"Well, this was a huge deal," Janine recalled, "because in the Church of the Brethren, you just don't file lawsuits." 

One of the three historic peace churches, along with the Mennonites and Quakers, the Brethren preach pacifism.

"So it was a really hard thing to do, but it was the right thing to do because it gave me a voice," Janine said.

But she wasn't sure she wanted to use that voice with the press. On the day USAir released the names of the victims, they were clustered outside her home. One reporter came up to her with a microphone and she stopped him. 

"I do not want to talk to you," she said. "I am appalled by how many times I have seen these people who were involved in a tragedy, and you ask them how they feel. That makes them look like fools."

Looking back 21 years later, she observed, "How do you think I felt? I was devastated and powerless. I didn't know what to do next. I had two kids, one in college, one in high school. My life had just been turned upside down. But I'm not going to talk about that. This is a tragedy. What's going to make a difference for the next family that goes through this?"

 Into the spotlight

Devastated maybe, but not powerless. As Janine likes to put it, "I'm not shy."

Neither was she inexperienced in dealing with the media. As a child, she started her own newspaper, the "Daily Blab," in which she wrote down conversations overheard outside the neighbors' windows.

"Then I went from house to house reading it to them," she recalled. "After the third house, my parents got the phone call. The neighbors were irate, and I got punished, but I went on to write for the junior high newspaper, the high school newspaper, the college newspaper. … That was the beginning of standing up for what I believed."

The Church of the Brethren also encouraged standing up for one's beliefs, but even growing up as a Methodist, she served as a junior delegate at the annual Methodist conference as well as their national youth conference. 

In Oak Park, she served on the PTO at Beye Elementary, Emerson Jr. High (now Brooks Middle School) and OPRF High School as her daughters moved through the school system. She joined the League of Women Voters in Oak Park in 1986 and served as co-president from 1991 to 1993. 

"The League was a tremendous influence on my ability to know how to frame things in order to make people listen," she said, "because if you just go on one of those rants, nobody's going to listen to you."

So she was the logical person to be the spokeswoman for the survivors group that formed in the wake of this tragedy. 

"It was a unique group," she said.

Within two months after the crash, survivors started getting together and saying, "We need to get to the bottom of this."

In the early '90s, the disaster victims' rights movement was in its infancy. The Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League was one of the first organized responses to an airline disaster. 

And this was a time when airplane crashes were much more frequent. 

USAir Flight 1016, for instance, had just crashed in July of 1994 at Charlotte-Douglas Airport in North Carolina. On Halloween that year, just two months after the Pittsburgh crash that killed Joel Thompson, American Eagle Airlines Flight 4184 from Indianapolis to Chicago crashed near Valparaiso, where Janine's older daughter, Nicole, happened to be a student. She left school and came home immediately.

Three years earlier, in 1991, United Airlines Flight 585 also nose-dived while approaching Colorado Springs Municipal Airport.

According to an article about commercial aviation safety in The Week back in April of this year, in the 1970s, an average of 68 commercial airplanes crashed each year, resulting in 1,676 deaths. These days, there are 40 crashes per year with 832 deaths. 

"Last year," the article states, "about 100,000 flights took off around the world every single day. Of the 33.4 million annual flights, only 21 crashed — an almost miraculous safety record."

 Becoming advocates

But that improvement did not come without a struggle, and Janine Katonah and the Flight 427 group were at the center of it.

They attended the first hearings of the National Transportation Safety Board at the Hilton Hotel in Pittsburgh the following January. They weren't allowed to testify, but they made their presence felt. 

Whenever the hearings broke for recess, for instance, each of the attendees left an 8-by-10-inch photo of their lost loved ones standing on the chair for the NTSB members to see when they returned. 

In the evenings, Janine recalled, they went up and down floors in the elevators during the wee hours hashing out three planks to present to the NTSB and the media:

Identifying the cause of the crash.

Advocating for improved safety throughout the airline industry.

Guaranteeing that trained professional caregivers would be among those responding to the needs of the victims and their families in future disasters.

The latter, it might sound strange to hear, was not the case back then. Responding to family members in shock was left up to the airlines.

The crash on Sept. 8, 1994 occurred at 7:03 p.m. Eastern time. She didn't get a call from USAir until 3:30 a.m. Central time to confirm that her husband was on the plane.

The media was all over this disaster. Byron Acohido reported the story for the Seattle Times (Boeing was then located in Seattle) and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of aviation safety. He's now with USA Today, reporting on Internet privacy and security. 

Lester Holt broke out of his role as a local Chicago newscaster to do a special on airline disasters, which included interviewing a pilot/whistleblower who recreated an entire 737 hydraulic system in a large garage on his property in Colorado. 

Holt's reporting gave him national exposure and was a stepping-stone in his rise to national prominence. He is now the anchor of NBC's Nightly News

In addition to Acohido and Holt, Janine was also interviewed by Joan Lunden on Good Morning, America.

The media paid attention, she said, largely because there had never been an organized response quite like theirs. Gail Dunham, the wife of a victim in the 1991 Colorado Springs crash, and now executive director of the National Air Disaster Alliance, readily gives the Flight 427 group credit, Janine said, for advancing public awareness of the issue. 

In addition, James Hall, chair of the NTSB at the time (1994-2001), encouraged the group's efforts, telling them not to give up. 

"This group," he told them, "has something special." 

Hall, now a consultant, has been critical of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for being too much of a cheerleader for the aviation industry and not concentrating enough on enforcement.

 A troubling history

Originally, the Flight 427 group focused their attention on USAir (now renamed US Airways). They had a history, preceding even the two 1994 crashes. The original name of the company was Allegheny Airlines. 

When Janine was growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the locals would call it "Agony Airlines." When the name changed to USAir, they called it "US Scare." It was funny for the time.

Janine's husband, an ordained minister, was an executive with Brethren Benefit Trust, the insurance and health care program for church staff and clergy. 

"Joel was one of the most capable administrators I have ever known," Janine said. "You could see how much people respected him and valued what he did." 

Before that he oversaw the Church of the Brethren's worldwide peacekeeping efforts. He flew all over the world, to that era's hot spots, Africa, Ireland, the Philippines. Occasionally, Janine traveled with him. They were married in 1982. Joel was 61 when he died.

"Each of my marriages lasted 12 years," she noted.

The 1994 trip included several stops to explain the church's health care benefits to various affiliated groups. 

"When Joel came home with his itinerary, I said, 'Why are you flying USAir?' His response was, 'To save money for the church.'"

Counting Flight 427, USAir had suffered five crashes from 1989 to 1994. They subsequently changed their name, and, as Janine puts it, without a hint of irony, "It was no accident." 

The airline is now US Airways. Maybe their luck is changing. The now famous 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" flight with Capt. Sully Sullenberger? US Airways Flight 5050.

"Poor USAir," said Janine. "The only emotion we could call up was anger because we hurt so badly. It was so painful. They did some despicable things at the beginning. I knew that a lot of what was happening was about money. But it could have been any airline."

That's because the problem the NTSB finally diagnosed was a flaw in the 737 design.

"The Boeing 737 was the workhorse of the entire international aviation industry," Janine said, "especially in the United States."

It took the NTSB five long years, until 1999, to announce the cause, and when they did, she said, "it had everything to do with the plane's hydraulics." Faulty rudder operation caused the crash, as it did with several others. 

Although the Colorado Springs crash in 1991 was attributed initially to "wind shear" and the NTSB never did settle on a cause, it was likely the same issue with hydraulic fluid failing to reach (and thaw) the rudder as the plane approached for a landing. 

As the cockpit recorder, recovered in Flight 427, clearly showed, the pilots had no idea what was causing their sudden plunge. Their expletives came through on the recording loud and clear.

Another similar crash of an Eastwind Airlines 737 two years later in 1996 was also attributed to the same problem.

Janine described it as "a rudder hardover brought about by the fuel not being able to get to the rudder, so it locked because of the altitude and the temperature."

The NTSB gave the FAA five years to have every 737 retrofitted with a backup hydraulic system. Boeing immediately incorporated the change in their new planes. Southwest Airlines, Janine said, which only flies 737s, had already retrofitted their entire fleet.

She wasn't the only one who wondered how long the rest of the airlines knew about the problem with the 737 design. The aforementioned pilot who recreated the 737 hydraulic system in a garage on his property in Colorado knew about the problem before the first NTSB hearing on the crash of Flight 427  because he flew Janine to those hearings in Pittsburgh in January of 1995.

"Someone somewhere knew that they had better back up their hydraulic systems because Southwest had already done that on their planes," she said. "It was really awful to think that 132 people didn't matter.

"It was about money," she added. "I hate to say that now, because it's been so many years and it sounds so vindictive, but it was about money. OK, 132 people died. Let's say they all settle for $10 million. That's nothing."

Janine wanted to take the case to court in order to expose the problem, but the terms of the agreement prevented that. As it was, the case took years to settle. In her deposition, she said, the airline's lawyers focused on Joel's age in order to try to limit the payout.

Meanwhile, the Flight 427 group was not idle. In January of 1995, they sent a letter to President Bill Clinton. Janine composed the initial draft.

"We propose that a family advocate be named as an integral component of future disaster investigation teams. This family advocate would be empowered by a single, respected entity such as the NTSB, the FAA, or the Secretary of Transportation and would have legal authority to address the communication, support and services needs of the families of the disaster."

On Oct. 9, 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. President Clinton invited the members of the 427 Disaster Family Support League to the bill's signing.

"Something good came out of all this," Janine says today.

 The long road back

Personally, however, it was a different story. 

"I was definitely in a very wounded place, not sharp, not together. I can remember driving on Lake Street and thinking, 'How can all these people be going about their lives as if everything was normal? Don't they know that nothing will ever be the same again?' I was just encapsulated in grief. I felt disabled. I felt for years that my children didn't have a mom who had all her cylinders firing.

"By October I was already in therapy. My kids were, too, but with different family therapists over at Family Services [now Thrive] so there would be no conflict. It took a long, long time for me.

"But [activism] gave me a purpose. This story could have been disabled or paralyzed by tragedy, but we were empowered."

Over time, the family support group became a second family. Each year on the anniversary, they came together. The widows became fast friends and would go out to dinner together.

The families pooled their money and purchased the crash site from the farmer who owned the land. When they gathered in April of 2000 to dedicate the monument, she recalled, pieces of luggage and clothing debris were still occasionally found in the trees nearby. The group also created a logo, which featured a rainbow, a tree with a single leaf, and the words "Flight 427."

"The tree," she said, "reflects inner strength, the single leaf the spirit of the one we lost, the rainbow hope and peace, and Flight 427 the root and basis of the tragedy."

They weren't the only ones who needed to heal. At the first anniversary get-together, Janine couldn't sleep ("I didn't sleep well for years"), so she put on KDKA-TV and watched the news.

"I saw this guy who was crying," she recalled. "He was a first responder to the crash. He talked about the ambulance drivers, firefighters, police, all the first responders, how profoundly affected they all were, because they went there immediately and found pieces of bodies. Those who stayed on the job were all in counseling."

At their final memorial service on Sept. 8, 2014, the 20th anniversary, Janine was looking around the room and made eye contact with someone who looked familiar.

"He was the guy on TV," she said. "I walked over to him and said, 'I had no idea what you first responders went through. I was focused on myself and my loss and would I ever recover from this. I am so sorry for not paying attention to what was happening with all of you.'"

He was having none of that. 

"Don't say you're sorry," he said. "You are my hope. Because you survived, I survived. Each year when this group got together, I healed."

 Healing

Slowly, Janine Katonah also healed.

She found a job at the ELS Language Center, then at Concordia University, now at Dominican University in River Forest. 

"I taught there for six years," she said. "It was wonderful. Those kids from all different cultures around the world really brought me so much joy when I had such sadness in my heart."

She went back to school and earned a master's degree in linguistics, then taught language arts for ESL students at a junior high in Cicero for 12 years, retiring in 2013.

Her first plane trip took place in May of 1995. She planned to fly to Kansas City to visit a childhood girlfriend as well as Joel's mother, who lived near the city. 

She got to O'Hare and couldn't get on the plane. She called her mother-in-law, who told her, "Do you have Xanax? Take it and get on the plane."

Now she flies (without medication) 15-20 times a year because her children and stepchildren are spread all across the country. She also sings with the Community Renewal Chorus, where she has been a member for 43 years, and which occasionally goes on tour.

She flies almost exclusively on Southwest because they were the first to retrofit (voluntarily) their 737s with the backup hydraulic system. 

Joel's remains were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park until this April, when Janine traveled to his hometown in Ohio so they could be inurned in the family plot at the foot of his parents' graves.

For a long time, most of her family lived near Oak Park, so it made sense to have him close by. Now Janine is the only one still living in this area.

"It's the right thing to do," she said. "This is the latest chapter. It goes on."

Life goes on too. At 68, she said, "I'm happy on my own now. I have a good life with good friends and I can still be an activist." 

She serves on the board of Oak Park Township Senior Services. She joined the Philanthropic Education Organization (PEO) and also answers phones on WFMT-FM's pledge drives.

And, after 41 years in her Oak Park home, the one with the backyard that was Joel's pride and gardening joy, she sold it to a young family, who salved her heartache with the following note: "Not only is the neighborhood charming and kid-friendly, but your house has everything a growing family could want." 

"It was a wonderful house," says Janine, who now lives in a condo in Forest Park, "but I'm ready to take it easy. What am I going to do now? I'm going to continue singing and being a leader at church."

And on the 21st anniversary of the crash that changed her life and so many others, Janine Katonah is in the Asheville, North Carolina, area attending the Church of the Brethren's National Older Adult Conference at Lake Junaluska, which happened to be the final destination of Joel Thompson's 1994 trip itinerary. 

Full circle. 

Safe landing. 

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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Reader Comments

3 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Nicole Katonah Murphy  

Posted: September 9th, 2015 7:05 PM

Thank you for handling this story with such love and care. You really captured my mom's story perfectly. Thank you!

Eric Brightfield  

Posted: September 8th, 2015 10:57 PM

Ken I often refer to you as a left wing nut job but what a lovely and inspiring story filled with real life and triumph over tragedy. I remember watching a TV show on Discovery about the 737 problems. Sad that they chose profits over safety .

Marlene Russum Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: September 8th, 2015 6:19 PM

A remarkable woman. Thank you for sharing her story.

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