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Southern Flight 242: In 1977, in the tiny town of New Hope, a plane crashed in my yard

Southern Flight 242: In 1977, in the tiny town of New Hope, a plane crashed in my yard

Emory Burkhalter, the author’s father, took this photo of the wreckage of Southern Flight 242 from the front porch. Months later, the family was still collecting pieces of the plane from the yard. Photo: Submitted photos

My brothers, Stanley, 14, and Steve, 13, were on their bicycles. I was on my tricycle. Our neighbor, Tony Clayton, came from across the road to play, riding up and down our long driveway, cutting through dozens of tall pines.

My father called home just past 4 p.m. from his office in Atlanta with news that bad weather was on its way from Huntsville. Mother stepped to the front door and called us in. We pointed our wheels toward home, while Tony made his way up the driveway toward his house.

“Not one time did you boys ask, ‘Can we play just a little longer?’ Because I would have said yes,” my mother remembered.

We’d been inside for just a few seconds when a sound like a train rumbled through the house. We ran, I in her arms, for the basement stairs.

“Before I got to the bottom, the steps just bounced out from under me,” she said.

My mother couldn’t see the plane when she made her way back upstairs, only black smoke and fire and people walking toward our house. Some were in flames, some blackened from fire and screaming.

I was 2 1/2 years old when Southern Airways Flight 242, a DC-9 carrying 81 passengers and four crew members, crashed in New Hope, Ga., and broke apart in my yard.

Seventy-two people died that day — April 4, 1977 — 63 on the plane, nine neighbors. It is recorded as the worst air disaster in Georgia history.

Those who lived, and the families of those who did not, come together from time to time for reunions. The most recent was held on March 31, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the crash. The reunions are a way to pay tribute to the lives lost, to talk with others who were there, who saw what they saw.

Sandy Purl, one of the two surviving flight attendants, came to the most recent reunion. Just like putting flowers on the side of the road, she said, it’s important for her to remember each person who died that day.

Sandy Purl also remembers me.

I can’t imagine her remembering me, then a chubby toddler in my mother’s arms as she rushed out of our house, already filling with passengers badly hurt and in shock.

“I have a memory, a visual of you that day, and that has haunted me,” Purl said to me at the reunion. “I’m glad to see you’re OK.”

Some 60 people had come to New Hope for the reunion: survivors from the flight, neighbors who rushed to the aid of people they did not know, a local doctor whose image was recorded in newspaper clippings as he stood above bodies being carried in blankets.

Of everyone I spoke to at the reunion, no one had a problem remembering where they were and what they were doing that day 35 years ago.

It was like watching soldiers recall a long-ago battle. Someone would remember a passenger’s struggle to get free from his seat, or a particular injured woman’s scream for help, and almost always someone else would say, yes, I remember that, too.

• • •

Frederick Clemens boarded Southern Flight 242 carrying his luggage and a bad hangover.

Clemens, then 18 years old, had spent the night celebrating with two of his classmates. They were graduating from a nine-week Army course at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

“The next morning when I got up for graduation — the first time this has ever happened to me — I was still drunk,” Clemens said at the reunion in March.

Just hours after the graduation ceremony, the three boarded Flight 242, headed from Huntsville to Atlanta.

Clemens was on his way home to Wilmington, Del., for a few days leave before heading to Fort Ord in California to work at a nuclear weapons support section.

After takeoff, Flight 242 ascended into dark weather. Clemens heard the sound of hail battering the skin of the plane.

The lights in the cabin went out. Clemens heard three loud backfires from the left engine, and then the engine went silent.

He started listening for the other engine, to see if the same thing would happen. Sure enough. Three loud backfires and then complete silence.

“I knew at that point that we had been turned into a glider,” Clemens remembered.

But there was no nose-dive, no screaming in terror and clasping hands. Instead, the plane silently descended as if to make a regular landing. Passengers stayed mostly quiet, listening and waiting.

The plane drifted out of the dark clouds and into sunlight. Flight attendants Sandy Purl and Catherine Lemoine Cooper began giving instructions to the passengers on proper procedures for an emergency landing.

It took about six-and-a-half minutes from the time the engines cut out until impact, but it felt like half an hour, Clemens said.

Clemens was in the aisle seat. His friend Lee Collier sat next to him in the middle seat. Fellow graduate Amy Sebastian sat closest to the window.

“You always kind of picture like, in the movies, when you have these certain scenes, a major turning point before something’s about to happen,” Clemens said, remembering with a laugh that he felt a bit cheated when it finally did come time to hold hands.

“I was holding hands with Lee, and he got to hold Amy’s hand.”

The plane made a steep left bank, and the tops of pine trees came into view through the windows. The plane lined up with Highway 92, and the flight attendants gave the passengers orders to put their heads between their knees and “grab your ankles!”

“From then on, my world was the carpet below my feet,” Clemens said. “You’re just waiting for the sensations.”

First came the feeling of the beating of treetops underneath them, getting louder and harder, the plane shuddering and jerking like an out-of-control roller coaster.

“It kept getting worse and worse, and I suddenly realized at a certain point, there’s a good chance I’m not going to get out of this alive,” Clemens said.

The plane’s left wing struck a gas station, and a hole opened up in the left side. Flames poured into the cabin. Clemens couldn’t see the hole, but he could see the orange glow of the fire.

“At that point,” Clemens said, his voice trembling for a moment, “I actually, suddenly, felt the presence of God, and I had this feeling of … I realized I was going to die, and I felt a huge feeling of peace come over me. My bags were packed and I was ready to go.

“And I didn’t mind dying at that point, because it was so peaceful,” he said, pausing as if living the feeling over again.

It was then that the question framed in his mind: “Is this how it’s going to be?”

“In answer to my question, the next moment I opened my eyes, and instead of the carpet, I’m flat on my back looking at the blue sky.”

Clemens had been ejected from the tail section when it split open at impact, sending people and luggage and seats flying out across our yard.

His seat belt left bruises on his hips. His wristwatch was slung off with such force that it ripped his skin. Second-degree burns covered his arms and face. He thinks he must have flown through a fireball at some point, but he has no recollection of it.

He lifted himself off the ground and turned to see a car parked in a driveway a few feet away and, beyond that, a small white house. What a perfect, peaceful suburban setting, he thought.

It felt like “Star Trek,” he said, as if one moment he was on a ship and the next he was beamed onto another planet.

He saw Amy. She was OK.

“At this point, I finally got my movie scene,” he said. “I called to Amy, and she walked back to me and hugged me and said, ‘Thank God, we’re alive.’”

Lee was later found lying on the ground with an injured back. All three had made it through alive. They were the only group to have flown together to do so.

• • •

Clemens, now 52, attended the reunion with his wife, Widya, and their 3-year-old daughter, Shenandoah, a beautiful little girl with jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“In that stage of your life, you have a different perspective,” Clemens said, recalling his younger self. “The latest change is having her,” he said, pointing to Shenandoah, happily collecting wildflowers at the close of the reunion.

“You really get a different feeling when you have your own child, and what it could mean to lose them.”

Clemens now works as an analyst at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., but for a time before that, he worked for an airline, even, unbelievably, taking a job as a flight attendant for a while.

There were always reminders of the crash, and he became tempted to learn more. He wanted to know everything about the crash, and about the business of flying.

It was a challenge to see if he could do it. “I can remember that, after the accident, the first time I went on a roller coaster — that was a challenge.”

He first returned to New Hope in 1995. He and Sandy Purl and several other volunteers organized the first reunion in 1997. They held another in 2007, on the 30th anniversary of the crash, and again this year, for the 35th.

Some survivors were against the reunion, Clemens said. Others approved. Some come to the reunions and sit quietly, refusing to talk to the media, while still others talk openly because they say it helps them heal.

It’s like someone once told him: “Everybody had their own crash.”

“I think it makes up for the fact that, way back then, people told you to go back to your normal life and pretend like it never happened,” Clemens said.

In 1977, there was no rush to treat crash victims for the injuries that couldn’t be seen. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though known to exist in some form and called other names for 150 years, was not added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980.

Sandy Purl, one of the two surviving flight attendants, spent years in and out of therapy as she struggled to cope with the crash.

“People ask, ‘When is that girl going to leave this alone?’ You know what? I’ll cry about this for the rest of my life, and if I can use it to make a difference, than I’m going to do it,” she said at the reunion.

Purl continued to work as a flight attendant for another 16 years, and later worked as a liaison with airlines, helping them better understand and care for crash victims, survivors and their families.

She wrote a book, “Am I Alive?” in 1986, which told her story and about her fight to increase awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Purl said that while time hasn’t healed her, it has afforded her life experiences that have taught her how to cope with the crash.

Clemens still dreams about the day he nearly died, but not as much as he once did.

“I started having these dreams after the accident in which I was dreaming about being in a plane crash. Every new dream I had, I was a little bit further away.

“In the first dream, I was in the accident. Then later, I was close to where an accident happened. And after that I was seeing it in the distance.

“Not to say that I still don’t get the real thing now and then.”

I’ve had my own dreams too, always me looking down through my toddler legs at green grass beneath a clear carpet runner. Then the dream moves me into someone’s arms, standing at a large window, where I watch a fire the size of a man move from side to side.

My family tells me when my brothers and I came back upstairs that day I was screaming “Monster!,” and that the body of a man was found just outside our basement’s garage door. Three large windows lined the garage door where they say I saw a man burn to death.

I don’t know for certain if my dream is real, or if the images of the man on fire were planted in my subconscious mind from hearing stories. My dreams faded with time. I stopped having them altogether sometime in my teens.

• • •

Framed prints of commercial airliners hang on the wall of Jerry Chandler’s office at Jacksonville State University.

Now an assistant professor of communication at JSU, at the time of the crash Chandler was teaching at Sacred Heart School in Anniston. He had been writing for a little while, but had never covered anything like an airline disaster.

Four years after the crash, he published an in-depth story in Airline Quarterly, shedding light on what happened to the aircraft. It was Chandler’s first step on a path to becoming an award-winning aviation journalist. He would go on to cover other disasters, like the crash of Delta Flight 191 in August of 1985.

It’s no accident that Chandler became interested in writing about the aviation industry. In September of 1959, Chandler’s cousin, Frank Greer, died when Braniff Airways Flight 542 disintegrated in mid-air.

Three years later, Chandler’s stepfather, Bob Gazzaway, was lost over the Pacific on Flying Tiger Line Flight 739. No trace of the plane was ever found.

“Any given crash is a matter of a bunch of factors all lining up for ill. If one of those factors is not there, then maybe the crash doesn’t happen. But if they all line up … ” Chandler said recently in his office at JSU. “What happened to Southern 242 back on April 4, 1977, was that all the factors lined up.”

The weather was good for the plane’s flight from Muscle Shoals to Huntsville. While waiting for passengers to board for the flight to Atlanta, Capt. Bill McKenzie and co-pilot Lyman Keele received an advisory of tornado watches along their general route.

There was no mention they would be flying into a line of severe thunderstorms producing hail and tornadoes.

At 3:54 p.m., the plane took off from Huntsville. Once airborne, the pilots realized things were much worse than they first thought. They attempted to navigate the plane through the storms using the on-board black-and-white radar.

On the flight recorder, McKenzie can be heard telling Keele at 4:03 p.m. that the weather “looks heavy. Nothing’s going through that.”

Then McKenzie spotted something on the radar that caught his attention. “See that?” he asked. “That’s a hole isn’t it?” asked Keele.

What they were seeing on the radar appeared to be a hole in the thunderstorm ahead. They pointed the plane in its direction, and in so doing mistakenly flew into a deadly blizzard of hail and rain that would seal the fates of everyone on board.

What they had flown into, investigators later discovered, was an area full of hail so large that it deflected the radar, making it appear like a safe passage.

The plane’s exterior started taking a beating from the massive hailstones. Both engines struggled to maintain thrust as they ingested massive amounts of rain and ice.

Chandler wrote that the two Pratt & Whitney jet engines were swallowing water 14 times faster than air, suffocating them and causing compressor stall.

The compressor blades inside the engines, unable to provide thrust, slowed to such a rate that they stalled, forcing the pressurized air to change direction and head back out the intakes.

Experts say that compressor stall can be fixed by staying off the throttle, but Atlanta air traffic controllers, not knowing the cause of the plane’s troubles, advised the crew to power up and increase altitude to climb out of the storm.

Keele increased power to both engines. “In doing so, he unwittingly set in place the last piece of deadly chain reaction,” Chandler wrote.

Fuel filled the combustion chamber, but without air to push the heat back and into the compressor blades, creating lift, the blades overheated. The result was irreversible engine failure.

At 4:09 p.m., hail cracked the cockpit’s thick windshields. A few seconds later, the left engine cut out. A minute later, both engines were out.

The pilots found themselves — for the first time in modern commercial aviation — with all engines disabled. “All of a sudden, you’re flying a big glider, which has the handling characteristics of a safe,” Chandler said.

The plane’s altimeter showed they were dropping fast. The cabin had decompressed. They had to find a place to land.

At 4:16 p.m., the plane was down to 4,600 feet and was 17 miles west of Dobbins Air Force Base, which Atlanta air traffic controllers were telling the pilots would be the closest and safest possible location for an emergency landing.

Asking if there was anything closer, the pilots received word from the controllers that there was an airport in Cartersville about 10 miles to the south.

But 10 miles was still too far.

“Like we are, I’m picking out a clear field.” — McKenzie.

“Bill, you’ve got to find me a highway.” — Keele.

“Right there, is that straight?” Keele asked, having spotted Highway 92.

At 4:18 p.m., Keele saw a car on the highway ahead.

“I’m going to land right over that guy.”

“There’s a car ahead.” — McKenzie.

“I’ve got it Bill, I’ve got it now. I got it.” — Keele.

“We’re going to do it right here.”

“I’ve got it.”

(Sound of plane breaking up)

(End of tape)

“They almost pulled it off,” Chandler said. The left wingtip struck a gas station, setting the pumps ablaze. A man inside the gas station died when he exited the building toward the flames.

The wing then struck a car sitting in the parking lot of the gas station, killing the three mothers and four children inside, and sending the plane skidding off the highway to the left.

The plane’s nose-cone dove down into a five-foot ditch in our side yard, and the plane splintered into five sections, flinging fire and debris.

McKenzie died on impact. Keele died shortly after.

Were it not for the plane breaking apart, the list of casualties might have been much longer. The 20 passengers who lived were either ejected from the plane or were able to walk or crawl right out onto the ground.

Unknowingly, the plane had passed a small airport just five minutes before it crashed. Cornelius Moore Field, with a small 4,000-foot runway, was outside the radar of the Atlanta controllers. They never even knew Cornelius existed.

Some experts have said the small airfield would not have been large enough for the crippled plane to land, anyway. Still others said it would have been better than a two-lane highway lined with power poles and pine trees, dotted with homes along each side.

The National Transportation Safety Board report would later state that the cause of the crash was the loss of thrust in both engines, caused by the ingestion of massive amounts of hail and water, which caused severe stalling and damage to both engines.

Additionally, the NTSB listed as a factor for the crash the failure of the pilot to use the on-board radar to avoid, rather than fly through, the thunderstorm. The report also stated that the Federal Aviation Administration failed to provide timely weather information to the flight crew, which contributed to the crash.

“There was a lag in the dissemination of real-time weather such that these people didn’t recognize that what they were going into was a real maelstrom. It wasn’t just a springtime thunderstorm,” Chandler said.

Every plane crash is a textbook, Chandler added. If studied, and lessons learned, a crash can change the airline industry for the better.

Today, meteorologists from the National Weather Service are stationed at 21 air traffic control towers across the country, helping provide controllers with accurate, timely weather information.

New weather systems have replaced the often unreliable radar of the time, and the NTSB has recommended that news of severe weather be disseminated to pilots more quickly.

Flying is safer today because of Southern Flight 242.

• • •

Sandy Purl awoke to find herself strapped in her seat, hanging upside down in a tangle of broken aircraft. All around her, passengers screamed for help as explosion after explosion sent bits of metal flying, and fire consumed whole sections of the plane.

The 22-year-old flight attendant moved into action, walking barefooted across burning debris. Many airlines had rules that required the removal of shoes in the event of emergency landings. Shoes could puncture and deflate the inflatable emergency slides.

Purl pulled countless people from the wreckage, helping them into the waiting cars and ambulances that had begun arriving by the dozens.

The people of New Hope came from every direction to help. Doors became homemade stretchers. Victims were loaded into any available vehicle, including a yellow school bus, to make the short drive to Paulding Memorial Hospital.

For the few hundred residents of this Sunday school community nestled in the pines with the uplifting name, the crash was a shock.

The people of New Hope came together again, 35 years later, to pay tribute to those who died, but also to talk about the crash with people who knew, who were there.

The quiet, two-lane highway is changed now, lined with shops. New subdivisions branch off in every direction. It’s no longer called Highway 92 Spur; it’s now Dallas-Acworth Highway.

A historical marker at the New Hope Cemetery, just down the highway from the crash site, lists the names of those who died.

The cemetery was as close as organizers from a nonprofit group called the New Hope Memorial Flight 242 could get. They’re raising funds to build a larger granite memorial to replace the historical marker.

Dr. John Covington, who treated the injured that day at Paulding Hospital, has come to every reunion. He comes because they are a renewal of “a community that seems bound together.”

In a photograph taken by the local newspaper, Covington can be seen standing over a victim being carried in a blanket by rescue personnel. More victims lie alongside, the young doctor deciding who might live with treatment and who likely would not.

When asked if the hospital had any idea so many victims were on the way, Covington said no.

“We had no idea. We just worked to take care of them.”

That sense of responsibility was something people talked about a lot at the reunion, a community of people who worked without fear for their own safety. Fathers and sons, nurses, doctors and firefighters who stepped into the burning wreckage to save people they did not know.

My mother often talks about a man wearing a pale blue sports coat, badly injured and in shock, who kept trying to say his name and what sounded like “Huntsville,” but she couldn’t make out his words.

The man stumbled through the wreckage just after the crash, inching ever closer to a maze of downed power lines. Grabbing him by the arm, my mother walked with him, side by side, over the lines.

“I said to him, ‘If you’re going, I’m going with you.’”

As passengers staggered away from the plane, my mother would help walk them away from the flames, up our backyard and into waiting cars on a road behind our house.

• • •

Tony made it across the street OK. His father, New Hope Volunteer Fire Chief John Clayton, saw the plane coming down, kissed his wife at the door and crossed the street toward our home.

Our neighbor, 71-year-old Berlie May Crayton, who lived next to the gas station, was killed when she was struck by a piece of the plane while standing in her yard.

On board the plane was a young soul singer named Annette Snell from Miami. Her career was just beginning to take off when she boarded Southern Flight 242 in Muscle Shoals, where she’d been working on songs in the legendary music studios. She had just recorded a song called “Promises Should Never Be Broken.”

She died in the crash. Several of her haunting recordings can be found on YouTube.

Masaru Ori, an organic chemist and inventor from Osaka, Japan, boarded the plane in Huntsville. He died as well.

Several weeks after the crash, a large convoy of cars brought his wife to our house.

My mother recalls that the woman bent down in our yard to pick up a small pinecone. My mother asked one of the woman’s companions what she was doing, and was told that she just wanted to keep a piece of the place where her husband died.

My mother went back into the house and brought her a small bit of metal from the plane.

We would find bits of wrinkled metal and tufts of insulation for months.

Mother still keeps pieces of the plane in a box. One-half of a seatbelt buckle. A nugget of metal fused by fire. A section of the plane’s outer skin, as big as a silver dollar and painted blue, from the blue stripe that ran from nose to tail.

When I was a kid, I’d find the box and search through it for my favorite piece, a small, curved glass tube filled with clear fluid and capped on each end, with a black marble inside that rolled back and forth.

It’s called an inclinometer. It was mounted on the dash of the cockpit and used by the pilots to tell when the plane was banking.

I’d hold the glass tube as if it held some bit of magic in it. It’s still a strange thing to me, something that was so close to the pilots, something they may have looked to for answers as their plane descended toward my home.

After the crash, my mother started receiving letters from a young girl whose father was killed. Bonita Erwin, now 54, lives in Florence. She was just 19 when the plane carrying her father, Kelsie Aubra Rogers, mistakenly flew into the eye of a storm.

Although my mother and Bonita have been friends for decades, writing letters and calling one another, I only met her for the first time at the reunion.

Erwin explained to me that she doesn’t come to the reunions burdened by a heavy heart, but rather a sense of gratitude, knowing that her father died surrounded by a community of good, God-fearing people who cared for him in his last moments as one of their own.

“If I had to pick anywhere, I’d pick here — not to hurt you, but because I know the kind of people you are,” Erwin told the crowd gathered underneath a tent at the reunion.

• • •

For my mother, I think the reunions are a way for her to feel normal again, as if by talking with people who saw and lived through the same things that day, she isn’t just some crazy woman who can’t seem to get over the crash.

Growing up, when bad weather came, my mother would panic, rushing us into the storm shelter she’d made my dad build for us below our carport.

She had her own struggles with the crash, but my mother, now 73, graduated this month from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in emergency management.

She started a master’s program in counseling three days after graduation.

Since the crash, she’s always wanted to find a way to help people.

She still worries about the man she helped walk over the power lines that day, 35 years ago.

“I never found the man in the blue coat, so I don’t know if he lived or died, and I’d like to know,” she told me recently. “It’s something that’s stayed with me.”

• • •

We moved from New Hope six months after the crash. I have no memory of the home we lived in, where all those people died.

My brothers, Stanley and Steven, remember much more, but we’ve never talked about the crash until now. My younger sister, Courtney, was born in 1981. The crash for her is like a distant relative who pops in every once in a while, when reunions come or Mom wants to talk about it.

Steven said it took him a few years to deal with it, but he’s been able to put the day into perspective and move on.

Stanley felt guilty for years for not having helped the passengers, but Mother wouldn’t let him. She said she didn’t want him to see what she was seeing.

All three of us were rushed to a neighbor’s house behind ours shortly after the crash.

I used to roll my eyes when my mother would talk about the crash, but after meeting a passenger who survived, and a flight attendant who crawled barefooted across burning metal to save lives, and a woman who explained to me that you can lose a father and still love your life, I don’t roll my eyes anymore.

The family that bought our home in New Hope 35 years ago still lives there. The husband died years ago; his widow now lives in the basement apartment.

Upstairs in the home live her son and his family. We visited them on the day of the reunion, a gracious family with three girls around the ages my brothers were when the plane crashed.

They’re still finding bits of the plane in the yard, but looking out over the long stretch of lawn, you’d never know anything had happened.

Blooming dogwoods dot the yard closest to the highway. Beside a 20-foot pine — just where the plane cut down every growing thing, the fuselage burning so hot it melted into the ground — a small bench sits on a thick blanket of grass. It’s a beautiful place now.

Contact Eddie Burkhalter at 256-235-3569 or


• The author would especially like to thank surviving passenger Frederick Clemens for his help in writing this article.

• “Southern Storm,” a National Geographic documentary on the crash of Southern Flight 242, can be seen in four segments on YouTube. The film includes interviews with Sadie Hurst and Steven Burkhalter (the author’s mother and brother); aviation reporter and JSU professor Jerry Chandler; and surviving passenger Frederick Clemens.

• Tax-deductible donations to the memorial for Southern Flight 242 can be mailed to Georgia Heritage Bank, Attn. Sheilah Pickett, P.O. Box 1430, Dallas, Ga. 30132. Make checks payable to New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Inc.

• Founded in 1949, Southern Airways operated until it merged with North Central Airlines in 1979, becoming Republic Airlines. In 1986, that airline became part of Northwest Airlines, and in 2008 was purchased by Delta Airlines.