United Flight 232 - 25 Years Later - Part 1

(SIOUX CITY, IA) "The plane was engulfed in fire and I calmly said to myself because I had made peace about dying and I just said, this is how I'm dying. I'm burning to death."

Those powerful thoughts from one of the flight attendants aboard United flight 232 just moments after crashing at the Sioux Gateway Airport nearly 25 years ago. It's one of the worst plane crashes in U.S. history.

Decades later, evidence of the crash can still be seen near the tarmac where the plane came down.

The 25th anniversary of the crash is just a few months away in July and the survivors of that day are planning a reunion - possibly their last. Siouxland News Reporter Heather Leigh takes us back to July 19th, 1989.

"This is a CBS special report - United Flight 232 was bound from Denver to Chicago this afternoon when an engine apparently blew up over Iowa."

"It was just so surreal. I felt like I was in a movie that I wasn't experiencing this," said Susan Callender, a flight attendant on United 232.

"I looked out the little porthole and I could see the clouds going by so fast and I thought oh gosh, if we could just stop and stay up here we'll be fine," she said.

"You can actually see seats with people in them go flying up and out of the aircraft and up into the air or down along the runway at more than 250 miles and hour," said Laurence Gonzales, Author of a new book called United Flight 232. "Everyone that I've talked to said, 'we couldn't believe that anyone survived that.' And in fact, passengers and crew members who later that evening saw footage of the crash did not believe that it was the crash they were in."

It's a day Sioux City will never forget, the rear engine of a DC-10 exploded over Storm Lake, Iowa, leaving the giant aircraft without any hydraulics.

Flight 232 changed Sioux City forever.

For Susan Callender, a flight attendant on United 232, it's the faces of passengers who lost their lives that remain locked in her memory - a couple flying from Hawaii, the daughter of a former flight attendant, a father and his baby and a young girl flying by herself that day.

"I said to her, I wanted to make sure her seatbelt was tight and I said to the man next to her, I said will you help her? And he said, 'we already have a plan. She's going to hold on to my belt and I'm going to lead her out of the plane," recalled Callender.

That girl didn't make it out of the wreckage but a year later Callender met her family members.

"I said, oh she was such an adorable girl. She told me she wanted to be a flight attendant; I gave her wings out of our kit. And they said, 'Oh we have the wings off her shirt' and it just was heart wrenching," she said.

112 people died that day 184 survived. Sioux City had around 30 minutes to brace for impact.

First responders, police and fire rescue teams and complete strangers showed up at the airport waiting for what was to come.

Larry Finley, a former state investigator, headed down highway 20 with a team of officers and rescue people, just in case Captain Al Haynes had to land the plane in a corn field or on the highway.

"We saw him go over our heads flying and we could hear him saying, I think we might be able to make the airport and so we turned around, came back this direction towards to Sioux Gateway Airport," he recalled.

Callender spent that time prepping the cabin, telling passengers what they needed to do and then it was time for her to buckle in to her seat and wait.

"We got a 4 minute warning. I thought, 4 minutes to think about my whole life," she said.

She thought about calling her parents to say she loved them but didn't want to scare them. Instead, she prayed.

You can still see where the landing gear hit the runway and 25 years later there's still evidence of Flight 232 scattered all over. Farmers still find pieces of the plane out in the cornfields nearby.

Now, as the 25th anniversary of the crash approaches Callender is ready to come back to Sioux City.

She's been active on facebook, helping to organize passengers, the flight crew and rescuers.

"It's just there to support each other and learn about our different experiences and just to comfort and to be connected to each other," she said.

Author, Laurence Gonzales, is about to publish the definitive history of the crash - what happened and how it changed aviation for the next quarter-century.

"Ever since that crash there have been advances in the way titanium is made that are pretty significant for aircraft today," he said.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of Flight 232 - 25 Years Later.