Survivor

Carmen Rivera-Worley swam away from the plane crash that killed her daughter. Now she wonders how many more will die before the FAA acts to prevent similar accidents.

In 1988, the FAA denied a request by Parker Hannifin to require backup pumps in all airplanes potentially affected by a pump failure, according to court documents filed as part of a lawsuit between Parker Hannifin and families of New Orleans crash victims. According to court testimony, the pump is designed to cannibalize itself until it stops, using fragments from wearing parts as its own lubrication.

In the lawsuit against Parker Hannifin, the New Orleans crash victims' families claimed the pump manufacturer did not go far enough to warn aircraft owners. And, as one lawyer working for Rivera-Worley said, warnings have done nothing to slow the rate of annual deaths related to the failures. While Parker Hannifin disagreed, saying it issued multiple warnings and went to great lengths to educate the public, it settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money.

While the FAA has studied problems with vacuum pumps and issued several safety directives, the agency maintains warnings are good enough to put aircraft owners on notice. In November, the FAA issued an "Airworthiness Concern Sheet" related to the failure of vacuum pumps. The sheet said that 1,990 instances of vacuum pump failure have been reported during about the last 10 years and that 18 had been reported in the previous year.

Carmen Rivera-Worley somehow managed to free herself from the wreckage of this single-engine Piper Cherokee after it slammed into the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain and sank in about 20 feet of water. Three others, including Rivera-Worley's daughter, died in the crash, which was caused by the failure of a vacuum pump.
Carmen Rivera-Worley somehow managed to free herself from the wreckage of this single-engine Piper Cherokee after it slammed into the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain and sank in about 20 feet of water. Three others, including Rivera-Worley's daughter, died in the crash, which was caused by the failure of a vacuum pump.

The agency issued the sheet in response to the dual-engine airplane crash that killed Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, his son and a campaign aide in October. Carnahan's son, the pilot, reportedly told air traffic controllers that his artificial horizon had stopped working. A failure of a part of the vacuum system is suspected as the cause for the failure.

The FAA "anticipates" issuing a requirement that vacuum pumps in some airplanes be replaced after 10 years and that pilots be required to check the pumps before each flight, but that would affect only newer airplanes and those being manufactured now. Owners of airplanes built before 1993 should have been told of the problem and are free to replace the pumps, too. They just won't have a federal agency require it, says Roland Herwig, spokesman for the FAA southwest region. Proposed rule changes are in the "comment period," which allows manufacturers, the public and others to provide the agency with guidance related to rules. Herwig says the agency responds to priorities set by the NTSB and to the FAA's own investigations of statistics. Cost is a factor in a decision to consider issuing a directive, but the agency has no formula for deciding what apparent safety problems to address, he says.


After reaching the surface of Lake Pontchartrain, Rivera-Worley was frantic. She called out for her daughter and the others.

"Within just a few minutes I knew they were dead," she says. "Nobody. Not a sound. Quiet. Just me yelling. Then you realize they were not going to come up."

On the surface of the lake, there was no light, and the water below was pitch-black. By the time she figured out where she was and what had happened, she was unsure where the wrecked airplane was below her or how far down she would have to swim to reach it. Despite evidence that there was little she could have done anyway, she made an unconscious decision that will haunt her forever. She didn't go back under the water to look for her daughter or the others.

After a while, a rescue helicopter began sweeping the lake with a beam of light. She swam toward the light, but those aboard the helicopter didn't see her.

"I kept going through this kind of cyclical thing. There were times when I would get really desperate and cry and be hysterical and then I would hyperventilate and I'd say, OK, calm down, OK, what do I need to do? How do I stay alive? How is it logical that I stay alive? They are shining a light over there. Maybe that's the coastline. Maybe they are looking for bodies that washed up on the coastline. OK, I'll swim over there. I'd swim and swim and swim. Nothing there. They were just shining the light on the water."

She was overwhelmed with guilt for being alive and arranging the trip that resulted in her daughter's death. She called out to her mother who had died 25 years before and others who had died to watch out for her daughter and John Scott. She cursed God. She prayed. She tried to drown herself.

"But all I could think of is what will Lee do? What will Ernest do? I thought, well, you know, people expect to bury a spouse. I thought Lee could handle it. It's not that unusual to bury a spouse. And I thought we've got to bury Sarah. I thought about my dad. I thought, I can't, I can't do that. You know, but I really did want to do that."

She spent the night like that. Treading water. Swimming toward the lights. Frantic. Ashamed. Finally daybreak came. Around 10:30 a.m., about 12 hours after the airplane hit the water, rescuers saw her and pulled her from the lake.

"I was embarrassed of surviving. It was really strange," she says. "I was ashamed. I mean I was glad I lived because I knew I needed to come home to Ernest, but I was really ashamed."

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