The Crash of Flight 1420—My Account
By Richard Klamm
Shortly before midnight on June 1, 1999, American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed while attempting to land in a heavy thunderstorm at Adam’s Field in Little Rock, AR. My son, Jason, and I were passengers on this flight that originated at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It has been almost seven weeks since that date and I believe it is proper that I give a carefully detailed personal account of the events of that day leading up to the tragedy, and also what occurred in the days immediately following.
The morning of June 1, Jason and I woke up at the Super 8 Motel in Seattle, WA. We had been in that area since May 29 celebrating Jason’s high school graduation, where we watched a couple of Mariners games at the Seattle Kingdome, and toured the area around Mt. Rainier National Park. Our trip from the beginning had been very enjoyable and without any problems. This morning, we checked out of our motel, returned our Thrifty rental car, and were shuffled back to the Seattle Airport in plenty of time to catch our 7:30 a.m. flight on American Airlines to begin our return trip to our home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Our return schedule this day began with Flight 1564 on an American Airlines MD-80. The flight left Seattle right on time, and was scheduled to arrive at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport at about 1:20 p.m. In fact, I believe we arrived in Dallas a few minutes early, taxied to the airport terminal, and eased out of the plane. We had plenty of time to position ourselves for our final flight on American Airlines Flight 1080 which was scheduled to leave Dallas at 2:13 p.m. and arrive in Little Rock 3:28 p.m.
From this point forward, a series of unplanned events unfolded which ultimately placed us on American Airlines Flight 1420. I believe it is amazing how the following chain of circumstances resulted in our final seating assignment on the ill-fated flight. After our arrival at the airport in Dallas, Jason and I located the gate assigned for passengers to board Flight 1080, and took seats to await boarding. A few minutes before the boarding process began, an airline official announced that the flight was overbooked and requested volunteers to give up their seats in return for a $300 travel voucher, good for one year on any American Airlines flight in the U.S. About a dozen people went forward and offered their seats in return for the compensation. Jason and I decided to throw our lot in with the other volunteers, since we could figure out a way to use the vouchers at a later date, and still be able to arrive in Little Rock only a little later in the day than had been planned. As it turned out, of all the volunteers that offered their seats, Jason and I were the only two selected to be bumped. We received our vouchers, new boarding passes on another flight, and proceeded to that gate.
Our next flight was to leave Dallas about an hour and a half later. The airplane was turboprop powered, and busses took boarding passengers to the airplane. After we had taken our seats, an official announced that the plane was determined to be overweight, and they needed about 22 volunteers to give up their seats in return for a $300 travel voucher. It did not take Jason and I long to decide that we should give up our seats on this flight as well, and be able toadd two more $300 vouchers to our collection. We left the airplane, got back on the bus, and returned to the terminal. In addition to the two new vouchers, we received two coupons worth $10 each good at any airport restaurant. It took a while, but we finally received our new vouchers, coupons, and boarding passes and it was now getting close to 5 p.m.
Our next flight was scheduled to leave at 10:22 p.m. on another American Eagle turboprop. We told a couple of traveling businessmen about our day’s experiences while we were waiting to receive our vouchers. One of them said they had decided to take a flight out the next morning, but suggested that we might be able to exchange our newest boarding passes for seats on an earlier flight. Since we would have to wait about five hours for our next scheduled flight, we figured we didn’t have anything to lose, so we proceeded to the American Airlines ticketing counter. I asked the lady at the service counter if there was any possibility that we could exchange our boarding passes for seats on an earlier flight. She did some checking, and found out that she could indeed seat us on an earlier flight. The seats would be separated (one in row 13, and the other in row 30). We decided to go ahead with the exchange, as it would put us in Little Rock about 9:30 p.m. I was also happy to see that the airplane was an MD-82 jet scheduled to leave Dallas at about 8:30 p.m. This was American Airlines Flight 1420.
It was now about 5:30 p.m., so Jason and I decided that we would go eat dinner at one of the many airport restaurants. We selected a TGIF restaurant in the terminal, and were seated at a table for two. I think I had a mushroom burger, and Jason had some type of chicken sandwich. With a few extras, our bill exceeded the $20 in coupons, but we only had to pay the difference. When we finished, I estimate it was about 6:30 p.m. While we were seated at the table, Jason spotted some friends of ours from Pine Bluff, and we visited with them for a while. They were en route to Baltimore to attend graduation exercises for one of their relatives.
We still had quite a bit of time to kill before our scheduled 8:30 p.m. flight. I believe that after we left the restaurant, Jason and I found the gate area where we were to board Flight 1420, and then sat there for a while. We talked to a lady who also had been bumped from the over weight American Eagle flight, and had been re-scheduled to take the 10:22 p.m. American Eagle flight. We told her about our getting on Flight 1420, and she thought seriously about trying that herself. However, she decided to stay with her current booking.
Then I heard someone remark that they thought Flight 1420 was overbooked. I talked to Jason and we decided that we would offer our seats to be bumped if they needed volunteers. I went to the lady at the American Airlines boarding gate counter, and asked if that flight was overbooked. She said, “Well, in fact, it may be.” Then I offered our seats if they needed volunteers to be bumped. She accepted our offer and kept our boarding passes, saying she would use us if need be. Jason and I reasoned that if we received two more vouchers, we would then have vouchers totaling $1800. If they used us, we could still be re-booked on the later 10:22 p.m. flight. I also remember there were a number of people hoping for “Stand-By” seat availability, but because of the already full flight, they were unable to be find any such seating. As we got closer to the scheduled time for Flight 1420 to leave (8:30 p.m.), the departure time was delayed to 9 p.m. In fact, the schedule was moved back a number of times for the next two hours. Reason for the delay was said to be weather related. I am not sure where the airplane was coming from, but I thought I heard someone say McAllen, TX.
Finally, the airplane arrived at Dallas, and taxied to the boarding terminal. It was around 10:20 p.m. when boarding got underway. Just before boarding began, I went up to the counter to see if they were going to bump us from that flight. She said they were not going to need to rebook us after all, but because we had offered our seats if needed, we had been re-seated in First Class in the second row on the right side of the plane. Originally, we had been seated in row 13 and row 30 in Coach. I called Kris in Pine Bluff to let her know about what time we would be in Little Rock, and she said that the weather in that part of the state was bad, with thunderstorms predicted for central Arkansas.
The first passengers boarded are those with First Class seats, so we entered the airplane and found our seats. This was the first time Jason and I ever had seats in First Class, so we felt this was a grand experience—big seats with leather upholstery. It also seemed like the whole boarding process proceeded smoothly, and I can even remember the Captain sitting in his seat taking some last minute notes before the flight attendants closed doors, shuts overhead compartments, administered pre-flight instructions and prepared the plane to move away from the gate terminal. I estimate it was about 10:40 p.m. when the Flight 1420 taxied itself to the runway for takeoff. Weather conditions at this time in Dallas were, as best as I can remember, calm.
Takeoff went very smooth, and soon we were ascending to cruising altitude. The captain reported through the intercom that the flight would be about 45 minutes, and the Little Rock area was currently experiencing “light rain showers.” As we reached cruising altitude, the plane leveled off and the ride was very smooth for the next thirty minutes. During that time, the flight attendants served beverages and snacks. This was the first time that I was ever served beverages in real glass cups, since we were in First Class. They also offered honey-coated peanuts, in addition to pretzels.
There were fourteen passengers in First Class. Jason and I were seated in the second row right of the aisle. During the flight, the only two passengers leaving an image in my mind were two people seated left of the aisle in the first row-- a lady next to the window, and a man seated next to her. I believe she had short hair, and he was lanky with a mustache. I can still remember them talking during the flight, although I do know what they were discussing. The only other person who comes to mind during the first portion of the flight was the flight attendant who served us. She was tall, big boned, and appeared to be a little heavy.
As we entered the final third of the flight, I began to notice out the window lightening flashes in the distance. Anyone looking outside could see the flashes in the night conditions, and it seemed to draw the interest of passengers. As we approached the Little Rock area, the more evident the lightening became. As the airplane began its descent, however, we were still well above any weather and it was still easy to see lights of population centers on the ground below. I recall one well-lighted area on the ground that I thought might be Malvern, AR, which is probably about 50 miles from Little Rock.
From this point on, it was apparent that the weather outside was worsening. The descent into the first layer of clouds began bumpy flying conditions that continued for the remainder of the flight. Of most concern to me was the increased frequency and intensity of the lightening strikes. However, there was no indication of concern or alarm whatsoever by the flight attendants, who finished gathering all the remaining cups and trash. The “fasten seatbelts” light came on, which is normal as a plane enters the last portion of its flight in preparation for landing. As we approached the outskirts of the Little Rock metropolitan area, the weather outside appeared to be very bad and had drawn the full attention of many passengers, including myself.
The plane continued to descend, and the ride was increasingly bumpy. About this time, the Captain came on the intercom and said “There is quite a light show going on out to the left.” I believe he said this to calm passengers, as well as leave the impression that he had full confidence in his ability to deal with the circumstance. However, I recollect expressions of concern and amazement by several passengers immediately after his remark. A minute or two later, he told the flight attendants to take their seats in preparation for landing. I remember one flight attendant at the front of the First Class section (facing passengers) taking her seat and smiling.
A couple of things I was thinking about at this time was the lightening, and why the pilots would be attempting landing in such apparently dangerous conditions. The lightening had intensified dramatically, both in frequency and strength. I thought about an Ozark Airliner that had crashed in St. Louis years ago after being struck by lightening while attempting a landing in a severe thunderstorm. Also, I was thinking about a Southwest Airlines flight I had been on a few years earlier that returned to St. Louis rather than attempt a landing in a severe thunderstorm in Chicago. I felt very uncomfortable.
For the next few minutes, the airplane circled the Little Rock airport at least twice. The clouds pretty much prevented us from viewing the ground more than a second or two at a time. Also, the clouds were much more numerous, and it was clearly storming on the ground. However, there was no way that passengers could know what the wind speed was near the ground surface, although it was easy to see that it was raining. The plane would intermittently slow down, then speed up.
Finally, I could sense that the airplane had begun its final descent in preparation for landing. Despite its apparent descending motion, we could not see any evidence of the ground as the plane got lower and lower until a few seconds after it passed the end of the runway. It now became obvious that the plane was battling stiff winds as it bucked side to side, and tried to remain level. I was very, very uncomfortable and just hoped that once it touched the runway, it could be slowed and brought under control.
The initial touchdown was very hard, which caused the plane to go back into the air. It came down hard again and did not seem to be able to stay in constant contact with the runway. After several seconds, still traveling at a high speed, it felt like the pilot was turning the plane rather sharply to the right, then was straightened out, only to swerve some to the left. Also, during the fast trip down the runway, I could feel several attempts to slow the plane with the engine’s reverse thrusts, but these were ineffective in slowing the plane significantly. From the moment the plane first touched the ground, there was never any time when I believe that the pilots had any control of the airplane.
The trip down the runway unfolded so quickly that I really had little time to think about the plane crashing. All I can say at this point is that I knew something was seriously wrong, and I lowered my head. I remember glancing to the right out of the window in time to see that we had gone off the runway and outside lights from the airplane showed grassy terrain going by very fast. At this point, the plane began skidding to the left and was vibrating violently. I vaguely remember hearing people screaming, which I think was coming from behind us in the coach section.
Somehow, I lost consciousness for a period of time. It is hard to say how long I was “out”, or what caused me to lose awareness. I estimate that I was “out” for at least 30 seconds, and possibly longer than a minute. When I regained my consciousness, I found myself still seated, seat belt intact, and realized that the plane had come to a stop. The left side of the fuselage in First Class had been ripped open, and I understood fully at that time that the plane had crashed. I could see that Jason had already left the airplane, and was standing on the ground about 50 feet away. He was yelling at me to get out of the plane, as he was afraid of fire or a possible explosion. I had no problem getting out of my seat, and climbing down to the ground on some broken pieces of airplane. While I was leaving the plane, I do not remember seeing any other passengers still remaining in First Class. I did not realize at that time that all the seats and passengers on the left side of the airplane in First Class were gone.
When I reached Jason, we began moving, along with other survivors, to an area about 200 yards away from the plane (this was close to the Arkansas River). About 50 yards out, I looked back and saw heavy smoke and fire coming from the tail section of the fuselage. We walked through water about ankle deep, and formed a huddle with other survivors. I estimate that there was about 15 to 20 people in our group. I learned later that there were several places on each side of the plane where survivors had assembled.
Weather conditions were terrible. In addition to heavy rain, we were pelted by marble size hailstones, and threatened by frequent lightening strikes within a quarter mile of where we had huddled. I remember thinking that the lightening, after surviving the crash, would kill us. This continued for the next 20 minutes. Jason was very cold from being soaked to the bone, and people assembled in our group were in varying stages of injury. One person asked if anybody knew CPR, as it was feared that someone nearby was having a heart attack. Several other people in our group looked like they were close to being in shock. One person in our group was the flight attendant who had served us in First Class. She complained that she could not put any weight on her right leg, and I do not have any idea how she had been able to get herself that far away from the crash site. I learned later that she had suffered a fractured pelvis.
The worst part of the storm finally passed, but we still huddled together and waited for emergency rescue teams to arrive. It is difficult to say for sure how long it took the first rescue vehicles to arrive, but I estimate it took about 35 minutes. I am not sure why it took so long, but part of the reason may be attributed to the time of day, power outages as a result of the storm, and the bad weather itself. In addition, the plane had gone off the runway, down an embankment, and was actually out of view from the airport terminal. I remember people in our group asking out loud, “When are we going to get some help?”
The first emergency vehicles eventually arrived. There were several fire trucks followed by ambulances. The fire trucks began spraying a flame retardant that was very effective in putting out the fire in the airplane. The smoke from the burning aircraft was irritating the lungs of a number of people, and many passengers were still very cold. I remember seeing a number of passengers crying and holding on to others. It was still raining, but lightening strikes had moved out of our immediate vicinity.
Our group had huddled near the Arkansas River. About fifteen minutes after the arrival of the first emergency vehicles, we formed a line and moved in the direction of the rescue units. We had to walk through a deeper area of water and then up a small hill to the road that the emergency vehicles were on. I discovered a small slit just to the left of the crown of my head, but felt no pain or indication of blood.
Medical personnel continued to arrive and attend to the most seriously injured. The rest of the survivors continued to assist each other in any way possible. One of the survivors had a cellular phone, and he let me borrow it to call my wife and let her know that Jason and I had survived, and appeared to be okay. She wanted to come over, but I talked her out of coming since I did not know where we would be, and promised to call and give her updates. Shortly after that, a passenger said that one of the pilots was dead, and that all the ambulances closer to the wreck site were attending to critically injured, and it was feared that there would be a number of fatalities.
Survivors were bussed to an area near the airport. The first bus filled quickly, so Jason and I took the second bus that took the remaining survivors. When we arrived at our destination, we moved off the bus and went inside to sign our names and receive any necessary medical attention. One doctor looked at my head and said I should receive stitches, so we were taken to Southwest Regional Medical Center for treatment. Medical personnel at Southwest were waiting for us and gave us good care. I was even given coffee to warm up. Jason had his lungs x-rayed for possible smoke inhalation damage, and the cut on my head received three staples.
We were at Southwest Medical Center until about 5:30 a.m. News of the crash was already coming across local television stations that we watched while waiting. We were given the opportunity to change out of our wet clothing into hospital scrubs. It felt great to be dry again. A lady from the airport called for a taxi to take us back to the airport to find two pieces of our luggage that I was sure had come in on the flight from which we had been bumped. During the wait for the taxi, I noticed that Jason was being interviewed by a reporter that I later learned was from the Associated Press. I didn’t know it at that time, but our names were among the first to hit the national news wires.
The taxi arrived at Southwest Medical Center and took us back to the airport. We arrived there about 6:00 a.m. Jason and I were in our hospital scrubs and entered the terminal amidst a lot of early morning business people in suits arriving to catch an early flight. Although we looked rather conspicuous, it really did not bother me much under these circumstances. I went to the front of the American Airlines counter and told the attendant there that we had been on Flight 1420, and I was hoping to retrieve two pieces of luggage that most likely had come in on an earlier flight. He stopped immediately and went to find our luggage. Then he had an associate bring his car to meet us in the area immediately outside where we were waiting and took us to our car, which had been parked at the far end of the parking lot. He also paid our parking fee. Jason and I then left the airport and drove home to Pine Bluff.
I used my cellular phone to call Kris on our way home and she said we were already getting calls from the press. Next I called my company to let them know our situation, and left a message on a voice mail. Jason and I were in a state of disbelief concerning all the events of the past 8 hours; it almost seemed like a dream from which we would surely awaken. Jason and I arrived in Pine Bluff about 7:15 a.m. Wednesday morning and drove by McBee’s Salon where Kris was at work. We went inside with our hospital scrubs on and kissed and hugged. While I was there, a reporter from the local radio news station called and interviewed me on the air for about five minutes. Kris said I had received a call at the house from “Good Morning America,” with a number for me to return the call. Jason and I drove on to our home, and I called the number. The lady I talked to asked me if they could fly Jason and me to New York to be on the program the next morning. I told her that I was very tired, but agreed to be interviewed at our house the next morning.
It is difficult to describe the onslaught of calls we received for the next twelve hours. I don’t believe it is necessary to go into a lot of detail here except to say that all the major television networks contacted us concerning interviews. We agreed to be interviewed by “20/20,” “Nightline,” and “Good Morning America.” The first group (“20/20”) arrived at our house in the afternoon. Later in the evening, “Nightline” picked up Jason and me at our house in a limousine about 7 p.m. and drove us to Little Rock where we did a live interview with Ted Koeppel via satellite. I was very sleepy on the drive over, and wondered what would happen if I fell asleep on live nationwide television, but I performed well under the circumstances. We arrived back home about 9:45 p.m. and saw the “20/20” interview that had already aired. I actually fell asleep before the “Nightline” program came on, and had to watch it later on a video that we taped. I did not get a lot of sleep that night, as I had to get up early on Thursday morning to open the doors for the first camera crews from “Good Morning America,” who arrived at 4 a.m. Diane Sawyer interviewed Jason and me early that morning, and it was broadcast nationally.
Calls continued coming in throughout the day, but with less frequency than the day before. I was getting very tired by now, and tried to rest a little. Over the next day or two, we received more calls from the press, and two people from People magazine came to our house for an interview, although I never saw the interview in their magazine. Jason and I were contacted by American Airlines on Thursday. They said that survivors and family members were invited to come over to Little Rock on Friday morning where we would be taken out to the crash site at Adam’s Field. We both decided to go. We arrived at the Riverfront Hilton in Little Rock a little before 10 a.m. I noticed a few people who I remembered from the flight, but most people I could not recall. One of the people I remembered was seated on a couch in the lobby, and I visited a little with him. The reason I remembered him was because he was at to the same hospital in Little Rock that Jason and I had been taken. He had suffered a broken shoulder.
A little later Jason and I were taken to a back room where we were introduced to our “Crisis Care Workers.” Each survivor was assigned one. Our workers were two ladies, one from Tucson, and the other from Toronto. They were very nice to us, and seemed to go out of their way to be sympathetic and understanding. Busses were then loaded with survivors and their care workers, and we left to go out to the airport. I am still amazed at the flood of emotion that came over me as we entered the airport grounds. It seemed like we were going to a funeral. As we reached their parking areas, we left the busses and walked to boundaries set up for us to view the wreckage. It was truly unbelievable that more people were not lost. It was also frightening to see how close we had actually come to going into the Arkansas River. The landing gear tracks could easily be seen in the grass terrain at the end of the runway, and I was astonished to see the evidence of what actually did happen to the final run of Flight 1420. We stayed there for about thirty minutes. As we boarded the busses to leave the crash site, families of those killed were brought to see the wreckage. I felt terribly sorry for members of the surviving families, and wondered why I had been spared.
Our care workers said that there was “something they wanted to discuss with us” before we left Little Rock. I think they mentioned this two or three times that morning. Personally, I thought they were going to ask that we refrain from making comments about the accident until after investigations could be conducted. When we arrived back at the Hilton, they took us to eat at the restaurant there. When we finished eating, they looked at each other and then presented Jason and me an envelope containing a letter and a check for $25,000. The letter explained the check as money to help cover any unexpected expenses associated with the accident. Jason and I were truly amazed at receiving the check, and I really did not know how to react. We thanked them, gave them a big hug, and then left the hotel for the trip back home.
The care workers visited us a couple of times at our home over the next few days. Their final visit came on the afternoon of June 7. I think they returned to their homes in the next day or so. They left us a package of information with relevant information applicable to medical expenses, etc. I will have to say that they did everything they could think of to help us. During the next couple of weeks there were a few times in which we were contacted. We received detailed questionnaires from the NTSB requesting our input into what we could remember about the crash. I filled mine out and returned it. American Airlines sent us a letter and said they were going to refund our full fare, which they did through our original billing source. We were visited by a private investigator about two weeks after the crash saying an attorney had hired him to gather pertinent details of the accident. He spoke very critically of American Airlines.