A mother's astonishing act

Margie Burns

August 18, 1993|By Margie Burns

MONDAY was the anniversary of the second-worst disaster in American aviation history. On Aug. 16, 1987, a Northwest Airlines DC-80 taking off from Detroit, en route from Boston to Arizona and ultimately to Los Angeles, showed bursts of flame near its engines, sheared off the top of a rental car building, crashed and exploded, killing all but one person on board and six others on the highway below. In all, 156 people died in the crash of Flight 255.

One of them was Paula Ciamaichela Cichan, 33, who saved the lone survivor, her daughter Cecilia, age 4.

Mrs. Cichan's action was one of almost unimaginable selfless bravery. Realizing that the plane was going down, she unhooked her own seat belt, left her seat and went to her daughter's, draping herself over the child.

It's astonishing to think through this action in slow motion: Without any extra time to plan for this extraordinary contingency (the plane crashed less than one minute after takeoff), with only seconds to act, with no other rescuers around and no tools at hand beyond her own body, she did the one thing that had any chance of helping.

Using the primitive material of her own body, she in effect strapped herself as a living, human safety device over the 35-pound, four-foot form of her child. And it worked. In one of those successes that make human action and chance look divine, the child survived -- with a broken leg and collarbone and burns over 30 percent of her body, breathing through a respirator in the hospital -- but breathing.

It's interesting that, in an impossible situation, with no right answers and no time to agonize or to debate with herself, Mrs. Cichan chose to save her younger and weaker child, a daughter.

Perhaps she hoped her 6-year-old son, who perished in the crash, would find other help. Perhaps she felt her daughter had less hope of surviving without her help. Perhaps she was seated nearer her daughter. Perhaps she felt a drive in her gut to help this child, no matter what else on the globe happened or did not happen in those 60 awful seconds. Whatever the case, without the advice of a panel of ethicists, she took the best course she knew.

The Northwest crash demonstrated other things, among them the wide range of human behavior in an emergency. Seven people were arrested for looting among the debris of the crash. It would be interesting to know what the looters have become six years later. Have they been airline passengers themselves, looking out the window at takeoff and remembering their own earlier response? Have they become parents? Or promising novelists or psychoanalysts poking among the debris of human crashes?

Some questions were answered only too finally. Catherine Cureton, spokeswoman for the hospital that treated Cecilia Cichan, said that two families from suburban Los Angeles and one each from Detroit and Phoenix called to see whether the survivor was a relative on Flight 255. (There were several children on the plane.) On hearing the child's description, each caller replied quietly that Cecilia was not the relative.

One response was another act of sublime generosity. Having lost a loved one, the Dodd family still found the emotional energy and grace to send flowers to Cecilia Cichan's relatives.

With a card: "Our prayers for your miracle -- the family of David Dodd, co-pilot of Flight 255."

Margie Burns writes from Cheverly.

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