Imagine the unreality of the terrible scene: The aircraft you’re flying in has just slammed into fog-shrouded trees and broken apart, the nose shoved into a ravine. Fire suddenly erupts
Imagine the unreality of the terrible scene: The aircraft you’re flying in has just slammed into fog-shrouded trees and broken apart, the nose shoved into a ravine. Fire suddenly erupts everywhere, people are screaming, and the front exit doors are blocked. Choking on thick smoke, you jerk on the cockpit door until the copilot is roused from shock and opens it, allowing you and a badly burned passenger to crawl out the left cockpit window onto a tree and then fall roughly to the ground.
That’s what 26-year-old flight attendant Colette Watson did when Eastern Air Lines Flight 212 crashed just short of Charlotte’s Douglas Municipal Airport on September 11, 1974.
But her story — a story of courage and determination — doesn’t end there. “As soon as I got down, there was a guy that was going to work and had stopped, and I said, ‘Help me get the copilot out,’” she recounts all these years later. She and her accidental helper scrambled back up the tree to the burning fuselage of the DC-9 “Whisperjet.”
“And so by then, Jim [James M. Daniels Jr., the copilot] had pulled himself over to the captain’s seat, and we pulled him out of the window. I don’t know how we did it — I can’t really remember — but we each got hold of an arm.” They hauled him out the narrow exit to safety. Then, Watson turned her attention to other passengers who had been ejected from the tail section or managed to escape through holes in the fuselage — tending their injuries as best she could, comforting them, even praying with a red-haired young woman suffering awful burns. One of the most horrifying aspects of the crash was that more than half of the 72 victims died of burns and smoke inhalation.
As the emergency vehicles converged on the scene and took charge of the rescue and recovery, Watson encountered an Eastern employee who lived nearby and had rushed to the crash site. “And he opens his arms out to me, and he says, ‘Don’t say another word — I’m Eastern Air Lines,’” she remembers. “And I just literally fell in his arms.” She managed to scramble out of the ravine, where she saw a young woman in a sports car, whose father happened to work on the Eastern ramp. The young woman drove her to the hospital. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that Watson “escaped without injury,” but that wasn’t exactly true: She had suffered two blows to the head that left raised bumps, a punctured arm, and multiple lacerations. The young woman took her back to her own home to clean up and try to recover from the shock until Watson’s husband could arrive from Atlanta.
“I had so much debris in my hair, and she helped me get in the shower and everything,” Watson remembers. “And when I got in the shower, I just started shaking and crying so hard. It was like it just hit me.”
• • •
For Watson, that moment was just the beginning of a daunting lifelong challenge.
“I was just so blessed, Philip, so blessed,” she tells me in a quiet voice rich with emotion and memory. “But the other side of this is I was so guilt-ridden for a long time that all these people died and I lived. It’ll torment you. It’s just like in the military, when your comrades are killed and you don’t know why you weren’t.” She relied on her strong Christian faith to steady her. Soon after the crash, she learned that she was pregnant with a daughter, which helped her focus on the future, as did the birth of her second child, a son, two years later. But the trauma still haunted her. At times, it became almost debilitating.
The trauma revisited her in unexpected ways. After testifying at an exhausting three days of hearings into the cause of the crash, she was ready to go home. “We were heading out the door, and this elderly man just kind of jumped in front of me,” she says. “And he said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but I just want to know if you remember my children — my son and his wife had just buried their baby, and they were on your flight, and they didn’t make it.’”
She confides, “Philip, there were so many stories like that, and it was like, it would just knock me down another notch. I didn’t remember them.”
When a person survives a tragedy, the danger is that she can be paralyzed by the trauma, defined forever by the most awful moment in her life. Or she can choose to face it and do her best to move past it — with no guarantee that she will succeed.
“I mean, I got to the point where I didn’t even want to get on an elevator with my children,” Watson says. “I didn’t want to get in the car with my children and drive — I mean, it was getting to be a problem. And I had to deal with it.”
Her solution was to return to flying. She had always loved the job and the crews with whom she worked.
Her solution was to return to flying. She had always loved the job and the crews with whom she worked. “It was never easy, but it was my life,” she explains. “You know, when it gets in your blood, it’s hard to leave it. I loved doing it.”
At first, Eastern offered her a job on the ground, which she refused on the advice of the man doing the hiring. He told her, “Colette, don’t take this job, because when Christmas is over, you’ll be furloughed, and you’ll be out of work.” She says, “Eastern Air Lines should never have done something like that to me.”
Instead, a year after the birth of her son, she went through the EAL training course again and worked her first flight since the crash. “I was scared to death,” she recalls. Worse, just a few weeks back in the air, on a flight out of Orlando, she encountered the same kind of blinding weather conditions that contributed to the downing of Flight 212. “The weather was so bad that you couldn’t see anything until the wheels touched down in Atlanta,” she remembers. “And I cannot tell you how scared I was. I cannot describe the fear — it just engulfs you.”
On another occasion, as the L-1011 on which she was crewing came in for a landing, one of the gears wouldn’t come down. “No passengers saw me, but we were standing in the galley, and tears just poured out of my eyes,” she tells me. “And this horrible flight attendant — she was the senior flight attendant at the time — she shook her fist at me. She said, ‘You get out of that uniform and you sit down in a passenger seat!’ People can be so cruel. I didn’t have to do that. I sat down in my jump seat, and I carried out my duties. Just because I was shedding some tears got her upset.”
• • •
The story of that terrible day in 1974 shadowed her for the rest of her career. “So now, we fast-forward several years,” she recounts. “I’m back flying. I’m on the jump seat with a male flight attendant, and we’re rolling down the runway, picking up speed, and all of a sudden he looks over at me, and he says, ‘You’re the one that was in the airplane crash, weren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’” He proceeded to tell her the story of his best friend, who was engaged to be married to the red-haired young woman with whom Watson prayed in that fiery ravine and who died a week later from her injuries. How the fiancé was so devastated, it took him years to get his life back on track.
“He went crazy — he lost it, for years,” she says. “And I just got cold chills. It was stuff like that all the time. And I never went around saying I was in an airplane crash — although flight attendants want to hear it. They do like to hear the story. But I’m just sort of a person that sits on the back row.”
Through it all, Watson was determined to continue doing the job she loved. “Because, you know, when you go through something like this, if you don’t face your fear, you’re going to be fearful of everything,” she says.
Only when Eastern Air Lines ceased operations in January 1991 did she take another job in her local school district. But the trauma of that long-ago day remains strong and vivid.
“PTSD is very real, and I definitely have it,” she says. “I still have to work on it to this day, being positive. When you go through something that frightening, you know, you just really become scared of life. ’Cause you’re just afraid it’s gonna happen again.”
• • •
When I tracked Watson down as an eyewitness to the crash of Flight 212, I worried that I might be intruding into a deeply private matter, asking her to relive painful memories. But as for so many who have suffered extreme trauma, the memory is not distant but remains a vivid fact of life that can ambush her out of the blue. She graciously returned my call, recounting the incident and its aftermath with quiet candor. She told me of her daughter, Bree, who is a teacher, and her two grandsons, “the light of my life.” Her son, Michael, is a nurse anesthetist.
“I’m so glad that they’re in service to others,” she tells me, “and I guess I know why God let me live, so that I could raise them and put them out into the world to do good.”
During a long career, I have interviewed hundreds of people — the famous and the unfamous, the shy and the voluble, the charming and the eloquent, many of them profiles in courage. We too often regard courage as a sudden brave act in the heat of a dangerous moment. But sometimes, real courage is the act of reporting for duty — whatever your duty is — day after day, year after year, even when you must take a deep breath and overcome your fear of what that duty may require.
Never have I come away from a conversation more inspired than from the heartfelt words of Colette Watson, who had the courage to fly.