Romulus — Dee Murdy knew just after the plane crashed. Her son was on board.
Thirty years ago, as she departed Detroit Metropolitan Airport after dropping off her 22-year-old son, Kirk, Murdy witnessed Northwest Airlines Flight 255 come crashing down into a nearby building before exploding.
“I knew it was his plane,” she said. “It was just one of those mother’s instincts.”
Kirk Murdy was among the 156 people who died in the crash, including six crew members, 148 passengers and two people on the ground on Aug. 16, 1987. The lone survivor was 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Arizona.
It remains one of the worst disasters in U.S. aviation history. Some family members, including Dee Murdy, say their wounds haven’t healed.
Murdy said Kirk had just graduated from the University of Oklahoma and planned to go back for his MBA. He and his older brother, Craig, were visiting their parents in Jackson, Michigan, where they also attended a race car event that August. Kirk Murdy was returning to Phoenix where he and Craig were living and working.
Craig had caught an earlier flight back to Phoenix, said Dee Murdy, who permanently moved to the family’s Phoenix home in 2003.
“He was really a nice young man and always in a good mood,” Murdy said of her younger son. “He worked hard, liked to play golf. ... I miss him.”
Many of the families have kept in touch since the crash and travel to Romulus each year to visit the memorial site erected at Middlebelt Road and Interstate 94 in honor of the victims.
Family and friends of Flight 255 victims gathered at the memorial site for a ceremony at 8 p.m. Wednesday to honor the lives of their loved ones.
As the sun set, about 200 people listened as a violinist played while mourners snapped photos or paused in front of a marble memorial adorned with flowers and stuffed animals.
Nicole Polec’s, whose aunt and uncle, Lisa Polec-Klaft and Don Klaft, died in the crash, said her late grandmother formed a support group to help others affected by the tragedy and sees the anniversary gathering as an extension of those efforts.
“All of the people who passed away — they live on through those who memorialize them,” said Polec, who lives in New York. “It’s a representation of love. We’re all connected by something tragic. That doesn’t mean something positive can’t come out of it.”
Her father, Tom Polec of Rochester Hills, agreed as he surveyed the crowd of supporters.
“It’s strength going on here,” he said. “It’s definitely a bonding with friends that turns into family.”
Shortly after it took off from Metro Airport around 8:45 p.m. on a Sunday evening, the MD-82 airplane bound for Phoenix stalled and struck a light pole near the end of the runway, ripping a hole in the left wing and igniting the jet fuel stored there. The plane then hit an Avis car rental building and crashed onto Middlebelt, just north of Wick Road. When the airplane hit the eastbound I-94 overpass, it burst into flames.
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the plane’s crew failed to use a checklist to ensure that wing flaps and slats were extended.
Of the 154 people on board Flight 255, 110 were from Arizona, most of them residents of Phoenix; 18 passengers were from Michigan.
Cichan, now 34, whose married name is Crocker, was rescued by Romulus firefighter John Thiede.
Thiede recalled the rainy night of the crash when he heard a moaning voice and saw a little arm flailing from the wreckage. He moved through the debris and bodies with a flashlight and discovered Cecelia strapped in a seat turned upside down. She was covered in blood and had burns and broken bones, he said.
"When we pulled up, I didn't think we would find anybody," said Thiede, who still works for the Romulus Fire Department. "I just think I was in the right spot."
Over the years, Thiede has kept in contact with Cichan. They text about sports, life events and he attended her wedding in 2006.
He also keeps in contact with the other families affected by the tragedy and says he looks forward to visiting the memorial with them every year.
On Tuesday evening, Joan Pontante laid a sketched picture of her brother, his wife and three kids on the black granite memorial.
She then locked arms with two other women brought together by the tragedy and gazed at the 156 names engraved on the memorial as the sun beamed on them.
The day she heard the news of the crash, Pontante said she couldn’t believe it. Her brother, William Best, 36, and his wife, Kathryn, 32, with their three young children had visited the Syracuse, New York area where he grew up and were connecting through Detroit on Flight 255 to get back home to Arizona.
“It was a day you wouldn’t want anybody to go through,” said Pontante of Fulton, New York. “It’s sad, but you learn to cope with it.”
Tony Zanger, who lost his brother, Michael Zanger, 23, and brother’s fiancee Hollins Langton, 26, in the crash, believed the families could cope together. So over the years, he’s used a website and social media to keep everyone connected.
Meeting up in Romulus for the anniversary has become a yearly tradition.
“We just wanted to connect with other people who were dealing with the same type of situation,” Zanger said. “Because let’s face it, after the funeral, people go back to their lives. But those that are left behind after a death, they are left to deal with the intense reality.”
Binding together after the Flight 255 crash has also led to some changes in aviation laws.
Pontante said the group went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which was passed in 1996.
The law provides protection and benefits to families and survivors of aviation disasters including prompt notification, family support services, briefing for families about investigations before press notification, a memorial service and bans unsolicited communication from attorneys for 45 days after a crash.
June Marsh of East Lansing admits 30 years later, the crash that killed her son, Craig Hale, and daughter-in-law, Kimberly Hale, both 30, isn’t on her mind every day. The couple was headed back home to Arizona after spending a week with family in Owosso.
“But if I do actually stop and think about it, yeah, I feel teary,” Marsh said.
The support from the group of other Flight 255 relatives has been her “salvation.”
“I consider us family,” Marsh said. “We can talk about it. We can cry about it.”