New Hopkins Hospital president survives

March 23, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- A storm sweeping the East Coast yesterday prompted Dr. James A. Block, the next president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, to abandon a planned house-hunting expedition in Baltimore and instead head home to Cleveland from a meeting in New York.

His flight lasted only a few seconds. "I was reading a book and the plane tried to take off but obviously it couldn't," Dr. Block said as he rested in a bed at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens early today.

"It dipped, then tried again, then we hit something."

The resulting crash spewed debris across a football field-sized patch of LaGuardia Airport and left the shattered carcass of USAir Flight 405 in Flushing Bay, just off the edge of the runway.

FTC More than 20 of the 51 passengers and crew were killed.

Dr. Block, who is now president and chief executive officer of University Hospitals in Cleveland and is to become president of the Hopkins Hospital and Health System later this year, was one of the lucky ones. He was battered and bruised, with badly cut hands and a noticeable abrasion on the bridge of his nose, probably caused when his faced slammed into the plane's ceiling as it flipped upside down. He nonetheless expected to leave the hospital today under his own power.

"I fought for my life," said the 51-year-old pediatrician, "and I won."

The accident had an eerie resemblance to a similar accident of a USAir jet only three years ago when an aborted takeoff resulted in another a slide into water, leaving two dead and many injured.

This time, the plane, a small Fokker-28 4000 commuter jet, attempted to lift off in a storm but instead rammed into a shed housing high-voltage equipment and a low dike separating the airport from Flushing Bay. The plane flipped several times, police said, spilling jet fuel on the low berm and causing a series of fires, before the shattered remnant of the burning fuselage finally came to rest in the water several hundred feet to the right of the runway.

Hours later, much of the wreckage was unrecognizable twisted gray metal fragments spread out on a hillside of singed grass, mud and fresh snow. Among the few discernible fragments were a landing wheel and a shattered passenger window.

Some passengers were able to walk away from the accident but many others were trapped in the plane, pinned by a badly mangled interior, said New York firefighter Tom Ballard. Thirty divers and up to 500 police and firefighters took part in the rescue, with many wading up to their shoulders into the cold, gasoline-tainted waters to retrieve victims.

"I didn't get scared until I realized where I was," Dr. Block said. "The plane had turned over and I was upside down, held in position by my seat belt. The plane was filling with water. I couldn't get the belt off and I was afraid I would drown. I knew it was up to me. I had to break loose or drown or die in an explosion. Somehow, it got loose, I don't know how."

"I stood up," he continued, "and of course I was standing on what had been the ceiling. Thinking about it now, one of the sad things was the absolute silence. There were no screams. I don't know where the people had gone. Nothing. There I was, alone in this folded metal mess.

"I saw light and I walked three steps in that direction. There was a hole. Outside, I saw a fire coming toward me. I had to get out of there. I knew there would be an explosion.

"But the (exit hole he found in the plane's outer wall) was small, too small to get through."I started to tear off pieces of sheet metal. I guess that is how my hands got [cut]."

Dr. Block climbed out onto what had been the plane's belly. Another passenger was in the water.

Dr. Block tore off his sweater and threw it to shore.

"I made a decision to jump. My greatest fear was that it [the plane] would explode," he said.

He leaped about 20 feet into perhaps 5 feet of water. Jarred by the impact, he recalls making it to shore but was stymied by the steep 10 foot water-side face of the dike.

"I knew I had to get up that hill if I was to get away from the plane. I saw someone and screamed, and between them pulling and my jumping, I was able to get over.

"I could see in the distance ambulances and fire trucks coming toward me," Dr. Block added. "I just started to walk up the runway toward them. I just started thinking I was pretty lucky. I was pleased I had fought as hard as I did.

"Nothing," Dr. Block said, "will ever be the same again. It's just incredible to be so close to death and be alert and make choices, each one potentially fatal."

Block's wife, Mollye, told the Associated Press that her husband had called home. "He said he had made a decision to live and he got himself out of that plane and swam to shore," Mrs. Block said. "He said there was a lot of commotion with the plane burning and the cabin filling with water at the same time."

Though obviously tired, Dr. Block appeared to be in relatively good condition.

"I feel very stiff," he said, "and I think I'll be very sore. It's a good hospital. The only thing they didn't have is a shot of bourbon. I asked them for Jack Daniels, and they didn't have that either."

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