ROMULUS, MICH. -- Jeff Welch looked up from the counter at Butler Aviation when he heard the voice of another pilot standing at the window, "Here comes a crash."

"I saw a plane 20 to 40 feet in the air, the nose up 10 to 15 degrees, coming right at Butler, going like hell and spitting out a trail of fire," recalled Welch, who had landed his small charter 30 minutes before.

"The noise was awesome. He was moving, really traveling, and he was heading right at us. He swerved to miss us, banking to the left. That's when he hit the light pole. It was the pole that did him in."

The jet's left wing burst into flames as it clipped the 41-foot pole in a National Car Rental parking lot less than a half-mile from the end of 3-Center, the shortest and busiest runway at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. The pole was fourth in a line of six; the others were untouched.

The MD80 jet, a 148-foot craft powered by two rear engines, rolled to the right, struggling unsuccessfully to gain altitude. It clipped another light pole across Wick Road, then hit the roof of an Avis Rent A Car building in a huge ball of fire.

The jet apparently began to break apart. At least one body was found in a charred tree at the edge of the Avis lot, and a deep imprint of a face was discovered on the right rear fender of a Pontiac in the lot.

The plane slammed into an embankment beside a railroad trestle 400 yards from the Avis building, then plowed under two Interstate 94 overpasses, scattering in thousands of pieces and a bomb-like blast.

"The guy next to me asked if I felt the heat," Welch recalled. "I said I felt like I had been barbecued."

Perhaps as few as 45 seconds had passed since Northwest Airlines Flight 255 had begun moving down the runway for takeoff. It had traveled about a mile. Of 155 persons aboard, only tiny Cecilia Cichan, 4, the "miracle girl," survives.

Last Sunday had begun normally enough for the five-year-old McDonnell Douglass plane, a modified DC9 called Ship 9309 by the airline. The modern airliner is a workhorse, designed for long days and long distances, big and impersonal.

On this day, Ship 9309 was scheduled to work 15 hours and travel 5,000 miles, beginning at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. It was to cross half of the continent twice, change flight numbers three times, swap several crews and take off and land six times.

Capt. John Maus, 57, of Las Vegas was on his first flight after a vacation and boarded in Minneapolis. Copilot David J. Dodds, father of four sons under 12, came from Galena, Ill., and the flight attendants lived in Eagan, Minn., and Chandler, Ariz.

Ship 9309 took on its third name of the day -- Flight 255 -- at Tri-Cities Airport near Saginaw, Mich., and made a short, apparently uneventful 39-minute hop to Detroit. There, it would pick up the majority of its passengers for a three-hour trip to Phoenix and a return to Orange County. The flight, offering fares as low as $203 round trip, is a popular one, often fully loaded.

Last Sunday was no exception. Joyce Howland, 53, of Mesa, Ariz., was told that the flight was full when she tried to book two tickets a month ago. As result, she is alive.

So is William Wilder, 48, a structural steelworker for an aerospace firm. He had a ticket and was at the airport. But he became so enthralled reading a Western paperback entitled "Buckskin Brigade" by L. Ron Hubbard that he did not hear the boarding announcement and missed the plane.

Every seat on the long-bodied jet, however, was occupied, and at least four infants were being held on laps.

Joanne Surowitz, 18, got her seat at the last minute due to a cancellation. After waiting in the airport three hours because an earlier flight was canceled, she felt thrilled to be aboard, friends said.

Few of the 155 on board knew one another, and each was there for a personal reason. When their names and faces are put together, they look like a yearbook layout from Middle America, clean-cut and appealing.

Wayne Mickelson, 43, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and his son, Daniel, 18, had been on fishing trip. Tom Barberio, who his father said "hated flying," was on his way back to college.

William Acker, 34, was returning from his parents' 40th wedding anniversary; Patrick Gleason, 49, was on his way to Arizona to test auto air-conditioning equipment for General Motors, and Donald and Sharon Briggs of Mesa, Ariz., and their two children had been camping and visiting friends in Michigan.

Michael and Paula Cichan, returning home to Tempe, Ariz., after visiting their parents in the Philadelphia area, with their children, David, 6, and Cecilia, 4.

Cecilia had been a big hit back East. Her grandmother had braided the child's blonde hair that afternoon and painted her fingernails purple, two things that would later help identify her as she lay burned in a hospital. Her grandfather had given her a new watch.

Thunderstorms were on the horizon as Capt. Maus, 57, and First Officer Dodd, 34, prepared for takeoff. Skies overhead were relatively clear, and the wind was about 12 to 15 knots.

When charter pilot Welch landed between 8 and 8:15 p.m., he said, "it was rougher than hell. They were calling it at 25 miles an hour. That's quite a stiff wind. It was turbulent."

At 8:22, Flight 255 left the gate 22 minutes behind schedule, having been given information about weight, weather and fuel to help calculate speed and wing-flap settings.

Investigators and eyewitnesses give the following account of what then happened: 8:23 p.m.: Dodd and Maus begin final preflight checks. "Flying is a checkoff business. There is one list after another," said a pilot for another airline who asked not be named. "Each phase of the flight has its own list. There's a checkoff list when the crew first comes on, a pretakeoff and after-takeoff list."

The lists vary from airline to airline. Northwest's contains nine items, the first of which is flaps, which should be down for takeoff. Flight 255's cockpit voice recorder contains no record of the pilots' checking them or of the sound of flaps moving into proper position.

8:28: The tower orders Flight 255 to change runways from 21 Right to the short 3 Center. Moments earlier, another jet had reported wind-shear conditions on 21 Right. A wind shear is a sudden, sharp shift in wind speed or direction, which can be extremely dangerous during takeoff.

8:29: Maus tells Dodd to check air temperature, wind speed and weight to see if the MD80 can use the shorter runway. A Northwest pilot reports no wind shear on 21 Right.

8:30: Another wind-shear report comes from the control tower. The pilots appear slightly confused or distracted by the runway change and have a short conversation about a nearby commuter plane.

Flight attendants give final safety instructions to passengers. Cecilia Cichan sits beside her mother with a doll. When Cecilia regained consciousness 3 1/2 days later, her first words would be about her mother and the doll.

8:45: Flight 255 is given clearance for takeoff. "Roger, Northwest 255 cleared for takeoff," Maus replies.

The big jet, its wings spanning 108 feet, begins hurtling down the runway. The voice recorder later shows no indication that wing flaps have been extended to proper takeoff position. A computerized cockpit voice alarm gives no warning.

The copilot of another Northwest flight awaiting takeoff would later tell investigators that the flaps were down. The witness, Lauber said, was at a "good vantage point" and "very positive" about what he saw.

"John Maus wouldn't have done a thing like that. He wouldn't have taken off without his flaps down," said a pilot, who had known him for 20 years and requested that he not be named. "No way. The guy has been around too long. He was a meticulous guy, a checklist pilot. He would check and cross-check everything." 8:46: Heading northeast with a tailwind, Flight 255 roars 6,500 feet down the 8,500-foot runway and lifts off, its nose only 15 degrees skyward. Traveling at 142 to 149 knots at takeoff, it reaches a maximum speed of 184 knots and an altitude of only 48 feet.

The first sign of trouble inside the cockpit comes from a computer warning system blaring, "Stall. Stall."

"I saw this airplane coming at me, and it wasn't lifting, not lifting at all," said a mechanic standing in the nearby National Car Rental lot. "This thing didn't have flaps out, not at all. It kept coming at us. I heard my friend screaming, 'It's going to hit us!' "

"He was flat on his belly," said the mechanic, who asked not to be named because his company -- not National -- had instructed employes not to talk to the press. "That's when it clipped the light pole. He veered to the right and appeared to be gaining speed. He was bringing it around. For a second, I thought he might make it. Then he hit the other light pole and the Avis building. It was all over."

Wayne County medical examiner Werner Spitz said preliminary indications are that those aboard died instantly. Only Cecilia Cichan survived, sheltered by her mother's body, according to rescuers.

Gordon Atkins, an airport security guard, gave a more frightening account in an interview. He said he was driving under the I-94 overpass about 250 yards beyond the Avis building. At least two persons in vehicles near him were killed by falling debris.

"I heard a real loud noise. It sounded like a plane was coming down on top of me," he said.

"I stopped under the viaduct. Flames were flying everywhere. There were people and parts of people lying all around; some were moving, even trying to run. I got out of the car and was pulling this guy with a leg missing up the bank.

"At least seven or eight people were moving; some were on fire. Then it blew up again. It {the fire} covered everything like a tidal wave, a flood. The fire moved like water. I let go of the guy. The only choice I had was to run or stay there and burn."

"It was hot," Atkins said. "You wouldn't believe how hot. . . . I've seen some pretty bad movies but nothing like this."

Atkins said he drove off through flames and debris on the highway. He said he recalls four separate explosions.

"It's too bad we couldn't have saved anybody," he said. "There just wasn't anything anybody could do."