United Flight 232 crash survivor recalls flight crew heroism

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Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. This is survivor Rod Vetter's story. (WLS)

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. No one who witnessed the plane go down would have believed that passengers would live, but many did.

The story of United 232 is both tragedy and miracle. It was a tragedy because 112 people died, but a miracle because a greater number of passengers survived. This is crash survivor Rod Vetter's story.

WATCH: Full interview with Rod Vetter

"It was a Thursday afternoon, partly cloudy and just a normal afternoon flight," said Vetter.

Normal would not last long. United 232 was Chicago-bound from Denver with 296 passengers aboard. At 37,000 feet over Iowa, a fan disk in 232's tail-mount engine broke apart.

Shrapnel severed three hydraulic lines, and there was no way to control the aircraft. For 40 minutes, the crew steered the DC-10 by alternating thrust on its two good engines. Pilot Al Haynes has to put her down.

"We have no hydraulic fluid which means we have no elevator control almost none and very little aeileron control. I have serious doubts about making the airport," said a recording from air traffic control.

Rod Vetter was in seat 19D.

"Captain Haynes came on the PA and said this is going to be a difficult landing. Practice all your emergency procedures and listen to the flight crew," said Vetter.

Sioux City was closest, the only chance. Flight 232 couldn't stay up without speed, but that meant a very fast landing. It almost worked, but the right wing dipped, and the plane hit and broke into pieces. Rod Vetter and other passengers seated between the wings found themselves hanging upside down in their seats.

"I don't remember undoing my seat belt, but I'm sure I did," said Vetter.

Many passengers in the plane's midsection walk out of the flaming wreckage into a cornfield- in shock. What happened? Where are we? Vetter helped other passengers. His lone injury was a fractured vertebra in his neck.

"My priorities there were A) Am I alive? B) Are they alive? C) Get the hell out of here," said Vetter.

Vetter remembers well sitting in the hospital shortly after the crash awaiting an X-ray.

"And the nurse comes in and there's a television monitor up above and I'm watching this plane crash through wire, through a chain link fence and I went wow, where was that? And she said that was you guys. I had no clue," said Vetter.

One hundred and twelve people did not survive, but 184 did, in large part because of the flight crew- including unshakable pilot Al Haynes and the late Denny Fitch, a pilot instructor from Bartlett who left his passenger seat to help the crew feather the throttles. Both survived the crash.

ABC7's Paul Meincke: "When you first met Denny Fitch and you walked up to him, did you thank him for saving my life?
Vetter: "Yes I did."
Meincke: "And what did he say to you?"
Vetter: "Just doing my job."

Vetter has kept his old passport and credit cards, which were both fire-charred in the crash. They are important reminders to him that every day is precious and saying "thank you" never wears thin. He is headed this weekend to Sioux City for a reunion of survivors, crew, and first responders to remember those who did not survive, and celebrate the lives of those who did.

"I just want people to know were all appreciative about what was done by everyone in this horrific accident. Gonna be a lot of hugs. A lot of tears. A lot of Kleenex sales," said Vetter.

The crash of 232 led to a variety of aviation safety changes and a continuing campaign to require infants to have their own seats on aircraft. But its most profound lesson came from the flight crew- that against all odds, their temperament and teamwork saved many lives. Rod and others will celebrate that again this weekend in Sioux City.

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plane crashu.s. & worldChicago - O'Hare
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