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35 years ago: Northwest Flight 255 crashes after takeoff at Detroit Metro Airport, killing 156

Cecelia Cichan
Northwest Flight 255 memorial
Posted at 4:36 AM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 14:40:57-04

(WXYZ) — Tuesday marks 35 years since the deadliest plane crash in Michigan history. On August 16, 1987, Northwest Flight 255 took off from Romulus headed for Arizona — it didn’t make it far.

Investigators blame a number of pilot errors on the crash, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

There were 156 people who died that day, all but one person on board and two people who were in vehicles near I-94 and Middlebelt Road.

Watch our report from 2012 on the 25th anniversary of the crash in the video player above

The firefighters who arrived that night had no idea what lied ahead. The initial call for a plane crash shed little light on the fact that it was a passenger plane — Lt. John Thiede, of the Romulus Fire Department, explained his rescue efforts to 7 Action News in 2013. He explained that he and another firefighter had heard a faint moan, or cry, and were trying to locate where it was coming from.

“I was checking three or four passengers, after about the fourth one I saw a chair upside down,” explained Thiede. “I moved the chair to the right and checked the lady underneath, there was no vital signs on her then I saw the arm coming out of the chair.”

That arm belonged to Cecelia Cichan — a 4-year-old girl — the sole survivor of Northwest Flight 255. She was seriously injured but has since recovered. She’s since married and now goes by Cecelia Crocker.

Cecelia Cichan

At the time she was burned and bruised, but alive. Thiede helped her to safety — the stretcher used to carry her to safety still hangs in the Romulus Fire Department. Years later the pair began speaking online, and he’s since attended her wedding and been a lasting impression in her life.

Crocker explained that it took a long time to come to terms with being the only survivor of the crash that killed her brother and parents.

"I think about the accident every day. It's kind of hard not to think about it when I look in the mirror," she said, in the documentary ‘Sole Survivor’ which originally aired on CNN. "I have visual scars. My arms and my legs. And I have a scar on my forehead."

She also sports an airplane tattoo on her left wrist — a reminder of where she’s come from.

“So many scars were put on my body against my will, and I decided to put this on my body for myself,” she said.

Flight 255 crashed mere moments after takeoff at 8:46 p.m. The plane tilted and struck a light pole — the wreckage stretched across Middlebelt Road near I-94.

A memorial ceremony is expected to be held Wednesday night at the exact time the plane crashed. That ceremony will be held at a memorial that was erected in the median between the I-94 east on-ramp off of Middlebelt Road. Hidden by trees the large granite structure has the names of all 156 people killed.

Northwest Flight 255 memorial
FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, flowers and pictures are shown at the memorial in Romulus, Mich. to mark the 25th anniversary of the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The MD-80 aircraft crashed in the Detroit suburb of Romulus, killing all 154 people aboard except for a 4-year-old girl. Two people also died on the ground. In the new documentary, “Sole Survivor,” Cecelia Cichan, whose married name is Crocker, breaks her silence, discussing how the crash of the Phoenix-bound jetliner has affected her. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)