One of my favorite things about being a journalist is what we get to see, hear, WITNESS. As a student of history, this is invaluable to me. You can read about things in books, you can watch things on TV, but only a few get to be there as history happens and share those stories. Sometimes, though, as journalists we witness events so remarkable, tragic and overwhelming, the moments never really leave us. We close our eyes and can still see and feel what happened the day we covered the story.
For KETV’s Managing Editor Jim Reding, those moments happened on July 19, 1989, when United Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa.
25 years ago this month, Jim watched with his own eyes as that plane and the hundreds of people aboard cartwheeled down the runway. His coworker captured the crash on camera, video that was later seen by millions and endlessly analyzed by aviation experts. Jim shared the stories of the survivors, the heroes, and the 112 people who died that day.
Here is Jim’s account of Flight 232.
Summer of ’89, Jim Reding was the 10pm producer at KTIV in Sioux City and on July 19, had just started his shift. The news broke around 2 or 2:30 of an Alert 3.
“We knew the plane had lost all hydraulics somewhere near Storm Lake, Iowa,” said Jim. “Our assignment editor at the time sent Dave Boxum, a reporter/photographer, straight to the airport. I got in a van with Cathy Egan, a reporter, and we were heading to Highway 20 east of Sioux City. We were told the plane was going to try and land on Highway 20.”
Within minutes, Jim and Cathy got word that the pilot was going to try and land at the Sioux Gateway Airport. The two took the first exit they could and headed that way.
“We spotted the plane coming over Southern Hills Mall,” said Jim. “It was flying so low, and it was so strange to see this large plane barely above the buildings and tree tops. I sped up, and got nervous that I wouldn’t get a shot of it landing. Just as we were parallel with the airport, the plane was coming right over us. I remember one of us saying, ‘God, please let the plane land safely’. As it went over our heads, it then cleared the Air National Guard building and the next thing we saw was the explosion and the plane rolling off the runway. I know we both yelled or screamed.”
Jim, knowing his coworker, Dave, was already at the airport somewhere, drove as fast as he could from where he was on I-29. He found Dave directly at the fence south of the runway where the plane had crashed.
“As I got out of the van I asked Dave if he got video of it,” said Jim. “He said, ‘I think so’.”
A still photo from Dave Boxum’s video, taken as Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City.
Jim, Dave and Cathy immediately got to work, setting up equipment on top of the van to try and see what was going on.
“There was so much debris and parts of the plane strewn all over,” said Jim. “The airport firefighters were already on the scene and more fire departments and first responders were arriving. That’s when I saw a Red Cross van driving towards the entrance and recognized the driver. I told Dave to relieve me on top of the van and I would take his camera gear and try to get access to the crash site. I distinctly remember the feeling that we wanted to have a camera rolling at all times on the scene.”
Photo by the Sioux City Journal
Jim began shooting as he got closer to the crash site, using the same camera and tape that held such an important piece of video.
“The record deck was not working properly. It was stopping and starting on its own. All sorts of lights were flashing,” said Jim. “I started to smack the camera with my hand to see if that helped. It didn’t. I tried rewinding the tape and fast forwarding the tape to see if that would make a difference and it didn’t.”
In the chaos that followed, Jim radioed KTIV to tell them what he thought he had and that he was having problems with his gear.
“All this time, I didn’t realize how close I had come to erasing or taping over Dave’s historical video,” said Jim. “Dave would tell me later that he wasn’t sure he had gotten the video because his deck was acting up. When the video got back to the station, they had to dub it over to a one-inch reel to play it. By the end of the day, the whole world would see that video. Robert Hager, reporter with NBC who covered all the big plane crashes, told me and others at the time that it was one of the most important pieces of video in aviation history. This was long before cell phone videos and Go Pros; it was so rare to capture a major crash on tape. I’m sure United and other companies learned a lot by watching that video.”
Jim spent the rest of the day and night there at the airport, shooting interviews and field producing coverage of the crash for KTIV.
Photo by the Sioux City Journal
“We weren’t used to covering a story of such magnitude, and it was a story that kept expanding,” said Jim. “The survivors, the families, the investigation, the community reaction and endless personal stories of people impacted by the crash.”
We know now that United Flight 232, originally scheduled from Denver to Chicago, suffered catastrophic failure of its tail-mounted engine, which led to the loss of all flight controls. 296 people were on board; 112 died. Despite such unimaginable loss, many considered it a miracle 184 people survived. Many credit the flight crew and captain Alfred Haynes, who essentially landed the plane without conventional control.
“The fact that I witnessed the crash and was physically on site to talk with survivors and those involved in the rescue probably has something to do with how I feel,” said Jim. “I was in the field and felt the real impact of the story. You have to remember that 112 people died! That’s the greatest loss of life in this region that I know of. You had Captain Al Haynes, who with the help of his crew, made a miraculous landing, saving 184 people. An emergency response that would be a model for the world. An NTSB investigation that would lead them to find a cause to the crash. And for the first time, video of a DC-10 crashing, that would help educate pilots and engineers in the future. And of course, you would have a movie made about it, with Hollywood legends. It was, and still is the biggest story I’ve ever covered.“
“There hasn’t been a summer I don’t think about that day and the crash of Flight 232,” said Jim. “We have family and friends that still live in that area and we drive by the Sioux City Airport on our way. I know often times my first instinct is to look west at the airport and the location where the plane crashed, but I usually find myself looking east and into the sky at that spot where I saw that plane go over my head. It was so big and still so clear to me. It’s hard not to think about all those people on that plane and how just seconds after they went past me so many lives ended and so many other lives changed. I won’t ever forget it.”