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Plane Crash Eyewitnesses, Relatives Haunted by Memories a Year Later

October 30, 1995 GMT

ROSELAWN, Ind. (AP) _ The sight of an airliner soaring overhead used to thrill Les Smith. He’s felt differently since last Oct. 31, when American Eagle Flight 4184 fell from a gray, windy sky and smashed into a nearby farm field.

``I used to see a plane ... and think, `That’s so neat,‴ Smith said. ``Now ... you see a speck in the sky and you think that’s how high up they were. No wonder why there’s nothing left.″

Flight 4184 was carrying 64 passengers and a crew of four from Indianapolis to Chicago when delays at O’Hare International forced the ATR-72 to circle for 32 minutes, buffeted by cold winds and rain.

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The plane was descending from 10,000 to 8,000 feet when it suddenly rolled to the right, flipped upside down and plunged to earth.

Smith was one of the first to make it to the field. He’d heard about the crash over a police scanner and thought a small-engine plane had gone down. Hoping to help, he ran through the field looking for the wreck until he realized there wasn’t any, only small bits of debris as far as he could see. Clearly, no one had survived.

``It was like everything was confetti,″ Smith said. ``You knew by the debris it was a big plane, but there was no big plane. ... There was no baggage, no purses, no clothing.″

Returning home, Smith was met by his 16-year-old daughter, Kori Lynn, who had gathered blankets for rescuers.

``He said there’s no one to help. I said there’s got to be someone there,″ she recalled.

``I told her there are no survivors,″ Smith said. ``There were no bodies, how could there be any survivors?″

In Huntersville, N.C., Rosemary Shellberg didn’t think twice when she heard about the crash, believing her son David, 25, was already back at work in Oklahoma after marching with the Purdue band during weekend Homecoming festivities.

She learned the horrible truth when her phone rang at 4:30 a.m. Nov. 1. Shellberg later found out her son, a meteorologist who had recently earned his master’s degree, had stayed in Indiana an extra day to give a talk to the National Weather Service.

``It doesn’t seem possible that a year has passed,″ Shellberg said in a telephone interview. ``It’s very hard. I keep thinking that at this time last year, I could have talked to him. He was alive at this time last year.″

At the crash site, the scars of the crash have healed. As a chill wind blew on a recent fall day, a combine moved slowly up and down the rows, harvesting corn and covering the ground with stalks.

Seven crosses bearing the names of crash victims stand near the field’s access road, through which debris and remains were carted off last year. There are photos on two of the crosses, ribbons and flowers on some of the others.

Across the field, a gnarled wooden cross bearing the words ``Flight 4184″ is tied to a fence post. A basket containing plastic flowers and a teddy bear hangs on one side, a wreath on the other.

Family members wanted a permanent memorial at the site, but the airline could not reach agreement to buy the field. Instead, American Eagle built a memorial at a Merrillville cemetery. That angered many family members because the airline had already buried several caskets of unidentified remains without notifying them.

Newton County officials recently said crosses and a permanent marker could be erected along the road outside the field. Local volunteers have planned a memorial service for Tuesday.

``It’s more from the heart. They do not have to do this, they were not pressured to do this,″ said Jennifer Stansberry, whose brother, Brad, was killed. ``It’s nice to know that somebody is thinking of the family members here and what they would like to see.″

Federal investigators think they know what caused the crash, but release of a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board, scheduled for last week, was postponed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said ice that formed on the plane’s wings probably hampered their lift capability.

The agency temporarily grounded ATR-72s from flying in icing conditions, but the planes are back in operation throughout the country with improved deicing equipment. That bothers Kim Collins, whose sister, Sandi Modaff, was a flight attendant on the doomed commuter plane; her husband flies an ATR-72 for American Eagle.

``Every time my husband leaves the house, I just think about it all the time,″ Collins said. ``I want answers.″

The anniversary service will give some family members comfort until they have those answers, Stansberry said.

``I’m not too sure what it will be like. I have been told that you think your life is going fine until the date rolls around,″ she said. ``Then you fall back down and it takes awhile to pick yourself back up again.″