When Christopher J. Meier checked in at the Fort Lauderdale airport, he found that he had been assigned to the nonsmoking section of Delta Flight 191 -- and he was having no part of it. "I told the ticket counter I smoke and I wanted to be in the smoking area near a window," he said today.
That's where he was Friday evening: seat 41J, a right-side window seat two rows into the smoking section, the only part of the huge L1011 airliner not destroyed in the final seconds of the flight.
To Meier, a troubleshooter for a Temple, Tex., convenience-store sundries distributor, those last seconds seemed bumpy but normal as the plane groped through a violent thunderstorm toward runway 17L at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
He had seen threatening thunderclouds around the jetliner as it circled the airport in a traffic hold, but he was not perturbed. Although he had taken his first airplane flight barely 18 months ago, Meier has flown often since. He likes to drag on his Winstons and stare at "the land and the clouds. I love it," he said.
So comfortable and certain of life was Meier that when passengers behind him cried out in alarm at the turbulence, Meier turned and said, "Don't worry about it. We're all going to be safe and okay."
Suddenly, he said, "it felt like somebody stepped on us."
"The plane kind of rocked, and people began screaming and yelling," he said in a telephone interview from his in-laws' home here. "Nobody was expecting it" -- certainly not Meier, who had just completed a successful two-week business trip in the Southeast for his company, McLane Grocery.
Meier, Johnny to his friends, anticipated nothing more than a brief commuter flight home to Temple -- to his wife, Theresa, and their children, Angela, 10, and Toby, 6.
But to his amazement, he saw the ground so close "you could reach out and touch it." In disbelief, he realized they were going to crash. "But these big planes don't crash like this," he thought.
In an instant, he asked God's protection.
In the next instant came a thump, and a huge explosion shattered the cabin in the middle of the plane.
"There was fire on the left," and a weird bolt of fire like lightning "raced down the right side toward me." Instinctively, he ducked -- and the bolt flew past and seemed to disappear.
With a grinding shriek, the tail section was torn off intact; most of the 31 survivors are believed to have been sitting there. The rest of the aircraft burned when the plane hit the ground about a quarter-mile short of the runway, killing 131 aboard and one motorist on the ground.
During much of the flight, Meier, 35, had abandoned his hard-won window seat for an aisle seat where he could watch the in-flight movie. He decided to move back when the pilot reported that the plane was on its final approach.
Moments later, the empty aisle seat was smashed to rubble in the crash.
"If I had stayed there, I'd have been dead. That seat was just hanging loose wires. I guess God told me to get up and move."
Annie Grace Edwards, who does not smoke, and Juanita Williams, who does, were sitting one row behind Meier as the plane approached the Dallas airport. When the two Pompano Beach, Fla., schoolteachers had booked their flight for the annual convention of the black women's sorority Delta Sigma Theta, Edwards made the sacrifice.
"I was just going to let her blow all over me," Edwards said today at the Hyatt Regency hotel. "We're best friends and birds of a feather and we fly together." Their loyalty, and their seats in Row 42, saved their lives.
Businessman John K. Moore of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., had wandered away from his seat in nonsmoking in search of some leg room. He found it in Row 35 and plopped down for the rest of the flight. The move saved his life: Everything forward of Row 34 was incinerated in the crash.
Moore, 43, said he felt the plane drop precipitously as it prepared to land and sensed that it would crash. He buckled up tightly, he recalled today in a bedside interview at Parkland Hospital, methodically "packed away my pens and said a prayer."
He buried his head as the rear wheels touched down -- followed three or four seconds later by the front wheels -- and heard but never saw the explosion that came next.
The tail section came to rest on its side. Moore, Meier and many of the other survivors found themselves hanging upside down from their seat belts about 25 feet from the ground.
"I was in one of two places -- heaven or earth." said Moore. "I knew it was earth."
Moore unbuckled himself and fell to the ground. It was muddy, he said, and heavy rain began to fall, doing nearly nothing to quench the flames.
"Fire was everywhere," said Williams, 55. "We couldn't get loose, and all I could think about was that the plane was going to explode." She freed herself and ran.
"My best friend!" Edwards chuckled to an answering laugh from her sorority sister, Williams. "She falls right over me and leaves me there still struggling with my seat belt!"
"I really thought I was going to die," said Edwards, "but the Bible says you can save yourself in the twinkling of an eye. I asked the Lord to send help . . . He had to have sent an angel because somehow I got out of that seat belt, fell down, rolled over and got away from the plane."
Two of the five sorority members aboard -- Zohniffer Gilliard, 20, of Atlanta, and Darlene D. Brown, 21, of Chicago -- were killed, according to Hortense G. Canady, president of the sorority, headquartered in Washington. A fifth member -- Kathleen C. Wright, 38, of Fort Lauderdale -- survived but was listed in critical condition.
Also killed was Phillip D. Estridge, originator of the popular International Business Machines' PC model and an IBM vice president, a company spokesman said.
Seven other IBM employes and six employes' relatives, including Estridge's wife, Mary Ann, also died. Only one IBM employe, Gregory Freeman of Boca Raton, Fla., survived, a Knight Ridder report said.
Meier carefully unstrapped himself and climbed down through the wrecked tail section. "I wasn't going to escape alive from the crash and then hurt myself getting out," he said. "People were screaming and crying for help" all around him.
His injuries were minor. With Moore and other survivors, including Jay Slusher, 33, of Phoenix and Mark Dewitt, 38, of Dallas, Meier turned to rescue efforts, carrying some survivors away from the wreckage and supporting others as they walked.
Meier fashioned a handkerchief compress for a woman who was bleeding profusely. But many, many others were beyond help. He could hear sirens around the group of shocked, wounded survivors, but the rescuers converging at the crash site seemed unaware that some were alive amid the carnage. They seemed mesmerized, he said, by the fiercely burning fuselage.
Meier and the others shouted for help. Suddenly, the rescuers were there, whisking them to waiting hospitals.
"When we were in the rescue wagon," Williams said, "a minister came to pray for us, and I told him he could go help somebody else -- I had already talked to the man."
She says she is not going to quit smoking. Edwards says she is going to quit flying.
"Let me tell you something, honey, this is one time I didn't mind being on the back of the bus," she said. They plan to return to Florida by van.
Meier is certain that he will fly again and that he will love it. But he is anguished by the memory of the crash: "There was so many innocent people, and you couldn't help them. It was already too late. I can't believe something so bad could happen so fast."
"Here is the key to the whole thing," Moore said in a choked voice. "We're all here for a short while . . . and some of us get a second chance. I'm grateful . . . It's not so much what you've got as what you do with it.