Flight 529 of Atlantic Southeast Airlines left Atlanta, Georgia for Gulfport, Mississippi on August 21st, 1995. There were twenty-six passengers and three staff members aboard the Embraer 120 commuter plane. Captain Edwin Gannaway and First Officer Matthew Warmerdam were in control of the plane, while Flight Attendant Robin Fech oversaw passenger comforts. In that time, she had logged over 2,000 flight hours.
What happened next
At 18,000 feet, Robin was preparing the forward galley for the service fifteen minutes into the journey. The aircraft jolted and there was a loud explosion. The left engine’s nacelle was deformed and the wing’s shape was altered because one of the propeller blades failed. This caused the plane to rapidly lose altitude as the left side experienced high drag and lift was lost.
Robin locked up the galley and settled into the jump seat, where she awaited further orders. She sensed the nervousness of the people and tried to calm them down. An emergency had been declared as the pilots struggled to bring the crashing plane under control. Because of an engine breakdown, Matthew had to phone Robin and inform her that they were heading back to Atlanta. She was responsible for informing the passengers and getting them ready for an unexpected landing.
Preparing for an emergency landing
Since the plane was still descending at a high rate of speed, the pilot decided to redirect it to West Georgia Regional Airport. Robin gave a safety briefing, showing everyone how to go into the brace position and making sure everyone was buckled in. She picked out the passengers who could follow her instructions and use the emergency exits. For the next seven minutes, she provided them with a briefing. She had not received any additional communication from the pilots. To put it simply, they needed a landing spot.
Brace for impact
While in the cabin making preparations for an emergency landing, Robin noticed treetops and rushed back to her jump seat. She yelled the “brace-brace” instructions. In fact, she had just returned to her seat when the shockwave hit. The plane nosedived and rolled over before crashing in a field outside Carrollton, Georgia. The plane was being dragged along the ground and there was a ripping sound. The gasoline tanks were burst, and the plane’s fuselage was torn in two between the wings. People, luggage, and debris were all flung to the right side of the cabin, which was lying on its left side. On collision, Robin had been knocked out cold.
The evacuation would be doomed due to the presence of black smoke, flames, and jet fuel. When Robin heard the fire, she whirled around in her chair. After hearing some groans, she wriggled out of her seat. Robin and the other survivors had to escape the burning wreckage by running through the flames. They got out of there via hatches in the cockpit. On the ground, people were ablaze. Although she was severely hurt and burned, Robin remained in control and yelled at them to run away from the carnage.
“I can’t imagine anybody being more calm and purposeful in doing her job. She was extremely terrific.”
– Bryon Gaskill – passenger on flight 529
She comforted the surviving and provided basic medical care where she could. She doused the flames on a burning passenger. She bandaged passengers who had been burned with bits of her own uniform. Robin’s legs were burned second-degree and she also suffered cracked ribs, a broken collarbone, and a shattered wrist. In a tragic turn of events, five people—four passengers and the captain—lost their lives. Firefighters were able to save the first cop, but he was burned to the extent of 80%. After the crash, four additional passengers tragically lost their lives due to their injuries.
“That lady did a lot out there. She’s one of the reasons a lot of those people lived.”
– Carroll County Sheriff Jack Bell
After the accident
For his part in the incident, Matthew was awarded the Military Fraternal Organization of Pilots Medallion. He had over fifty operations and years of rehabilitation before he could return to flying for the airline in 2002. After that, he became a pilot for ExpressJet. After the crash, Robin never got back into flying. The National Transportation Safety Board praised her “exemplary manner in which the flight attendant addressed the passengers and handled the emergency” in their report following the crash.
“Because of her, folks inside the cabin remained calm. No one was screaming…We did not panic. Robin behaved like a drill sergeant.”
– Air Force Major Charles LeMay – passenger on flight 529