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Manchester native, advocate still fighting for smallest plane passengers

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 05. 2014 7:50PM

It's been 25 years since Jan Brown walked away from a fiery airplane crash in Sioux City, Iowa, that killed 112 others.

But she's never stopped thinking about a little boy who died that day - and fighting for the one simple measure that might have saved his life.

Brown, a Manchester native who is now retired and living outside Chicago, was chief flight attendant on board United Airlines Flight 232. After a catastrophic engine failure severed the aircraft's hydraulic systems, the DC-10 crash-landed at Sioux Gateway Airport on July 19, 1989.

Brown will attend a crew reunion and memorial events in Sioux City for the anniversary this month. And a new book just came out, detailing the horror and heroics of that day: "Flight 232 - A Story of Disaster and Survival."

While she prefers to guard her privacy closely, Brown has become an outspoken advocate of mandatory child safety seats for the littlest plane passengers. "Somebody's got to do it, for Evan," she said.

Evan Tsao, 22 months old, was seated on his mother's lap during Flight 232. His body was found in the wreckage after the crash.

While children 2 and older are required to be in their own seats on commercial aircraft, babies can ride on a parent's lap. And as Brown knows all too well, even the fiercest parental love isn't enough to hold onto a child when catastrophe strikes.

Brown, who began her long career on John F. Kennedy's private plane, The Caroline, was the senior flight attendant on Flight 232. When the cabin chime summoned her to the cockpit, she knew when she opened the door that something was terribly wrong.

"It was palpable," she said. "Nobody had to say anything. I knew: This is as bad as it could be."

She could see they were at 37,000 feet; Capt. Al Haynes and 1st Officer William Records were banking the aircraft to the right. They told her the plane had lost its hydraulics, and they had no controls.

"Everybody was very professional, but I could see then the strength both Al and ... Bill were putting into the yoke and trying to control the plane."

She wasn't entirely sure what losing hydraulics meant, but feared the plane could go straight down. "It's a metal tube and it holds your fate. No place to run; no place to hide."

It was up to Brown to brief the rest of the flight attendants to prepare the passengers. She remembers saying a quick prayer as she stepped back into the cabin: "God, please let me be someplace else."

But she didn't let her expression betray her dread. "There's no choice," she said. "You just do what you're trained to do."

She didn't call the crew together because she didn't want to alarm the passengers. "I thought, they are not going to know the reality until we have to tell them," she said. "I do not have panic on my airplanes.

"Panic is your worst enemy, because then people aren't focused," she said.

Brown was about to brief the passengers when the captain came on and told everyone to prepare for an emergency. She remembers him saying something like: "I'm not going to kid you. This is going to be a rough landing. Do the best you can."

As soon as the captain finished, Brown began reading the emergency procedures to the passengers. She remembers the entire cabin, crew and passengers worked together to get ready for what was coming. "We were one huge team."

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