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Survivors, relatives of Flight 242 gather to remember

April 12, 1997 GMT

NEW HOPE, Ga. (AP) _ Survivors of the Southern Airways Flight 242 crash that killed 72 people 20 years ago returned to this hamlet Saturday to thank the people who rescued them from the plane’s fiery remains.

``I’ve always wanted to come back to this site, but I could never bring myself to do it,″ said Catherine Cooper, one of two flight attendants on the flight from Huntsville, Ala., to Atlanta. ``I’ve learned things today I didn’t know about. Each one of us had our own accident.″

The Southern DC-9, carrying 81 passengers and four crew members, lost both its engines in a storm on April 4, 1977. The plane crashed while attempting to land on a state highway in northwest Georgia.

Among those killed were the pilot, copilot and eight people on the ground.

Some of the 21 survivors and relatives of victims who attended the reunion hoped it would put lingering pain and questions to rest.

``How do you tell 10- and 8-year-old girls that their daddy was killed and some survived,″ said Regina Thompson of Muscle Shoals, Ala., who lost her first husband, Bobby Cameron, on the flight. ``It was so hard on them growing up.″

About 100 people reunited at Paulding Hospital in nearby Dallas to hear speeches by those on board Flight 242 and those who came to its rescue.

A bus took them north a few miles to New Hope where they laid flowers at the crash site. Some people carried single carnations while others brought bouquets of irises, lilies and daisies _ favorites of those who died.

New Hope Volunteer Fire Chief John Clayton recalled how the pilot, William McKenzie, made a perfect landing dead center in New Hope _ then a community of 30 homes. But the two-lane road was too narrow for the DC-9, and its wings sheared off gasoline pumps, the elementary school’s chain-link fence and pine trees, leaving the plane in flames.

``We had no stretchers, we had no equipment,″ Clayton said of those who rushed to help those trapped by fire and twisted metal. ``We took our pocketknives and cut seat belts off people who were still strapped in.″

Townspeople pulled doors off hinges to make stretchers and tore their curtains and sheets to make blankets and bandages for the injured, Clayton said.

Passenger Jerry Causey said he panicked in the seconds after the crash when he realized he was alive and on fire. He escaped with burns over half his body, the scars still noticeable today.

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The crash changed his life, he said. He left his job installing computer software systems and earned a doctorate in psychology. He is now a counselor at Calhoun Community College in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and says he focuses on helping people.

``I saw a lot of horrible things but I don’t want to talk about that,″ he said. ``The last 20 years have been great for me. It was a tragedy, but there were some good things that came out of it. It changed my life for the better.″

The other flight attendant on Flight 242, Sandy Purl, said she needed years of therapy to soothe the emotional wounds from the crash. She now works with airlines in training liaison officers who work with the families of crash victims and survivors.

``Nobody should have to go through that alone,″ she said. ``I can’t fix all of it, but if I can make it better for one person, I’ll walk through it with them again.″