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.

After a few days in the hospital, she boarded an American Airlines flight to Dallas. Family and friends thought she might want to drive instead.

"I thought about it and thought no, my work doesn't require me to fly that often, but I can't let this just take over my life. The thought of flying didn't scare me that much," she says.

But during the flight, on her daughter's birthday four days after she died, the airliner flew right back over Lake Pontchartrain, where the small airplane was still submerged.

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.

"I don't know why I didn't close the curtain, but all of the sudden I looked out at that lake and all I could think of is she's still there," Rivera-Worley says. "I'm going home, and she's still there."

John Scott, who was leaning into the cockpit at the time of impact, wore no seat belt, so his body floated to the surface a couple of days after the crash. He left a wife and two small children. There was still no sign of the others or of the airplane. Jerry Taylor used his own money to hire boats to drag the junk-strewn lake bottom and search underwater with sonar. Air traffic controllers had already told him that Bryan reported instrument failure, but Taylor was determined to get the evidence he would need to protect his son's good name and prove that pilot error was not the cause of the crash.

With sustained pressure from Taylor and the media, about two weeks after the crash authorities found the airplane along with the two remaining bodies. Bryan Scott Taylor and Sarah Worley were still buckled into their seats and had water in their lungs. They had drowned.

The NTSB ruled that the crash was caused by "the pilot's inability to maintain control of the airplane after experiencing spatial disorientation. Factors were the total failure of the vacuum pump, fog, drizzle and night conditions." Tests on the instruments showed that the vacuum pump had indeed failed, but it could not be determined if the electrically driven instruments had also gone out.

Like his backseat passenger, Bryan Scott Taylor also left a wife and two young children behind. Rivera-Worley was left to bury her daughter. She says she felt compelled to see her daughter's body, which had been decomposing at the bottom of the lake all that time. It was another bad idea.

"I said I have to see her. The guy at the funeral home said no, you don't want to do that...I needed to touch her. I needed to talk to her. I guess if I'd ever said goodbye to her I guess that's when I did. More than anything, I wanted to tell her how sorry I was."

But seeing her daughter's body in its ruined condition was more difficult than Rivera-Worley could have imagined. Her voice choked with emotion and almost in a whisper, she says, "She looked like a monster."

She's haunted by that image as much as she is by questions about whether she could have saved her daughter's life. An autopsy showed that Sarah had broken an arm and a thighbone. So, even if Rivera-Worley had been able to somehow swim back down to the airplane and extricate her daughter from the wreckage, it is likely she would have had to revive her daughter on the lake's surface and then somehow keep them both afloat and alive for 12 hours. Sarah would have been in terrific pain and most likely unable to tread water or swim without much help.

"If I had been able to get her, even if she had been alive I couldn't have kept her alive," Rivera-Worley says. "What was I going to do with her with a broken arm and broken leg? I might have had to let her go."

Rivera-Worley keeps her daughter's driver's license in her wallet and wears the watch Sarah was wearing the day of the crash. She visits the cemetery where, at Sarah's grave site, the family placed a concrete bench, planted a tree and put up wind chimes. Rivera-Worley puts flowers at the grave and tries to keep her daughter's memory alive by pursuing the issue of airplane backup systems with the FAA.

She also raises money for a scholarship fund set up in the name of her daughter, who by now might have been completing her junior year at Tulane. Jerry Taylor writes letters to legislators and others urging that the issue of backup systems be properly addressed by the FAA.

The anger Rivera-Worley felt that night in the lake burns within her, even more now that she knows that her daughter was taken from her in what many see as a preventable tragedy caused by the failure of a 16-year-old part that would have cost $260 to replace. She's angry at vacuum pump manufacturer Parker Hannifin, which, as a result of her lawsuit, was forced to release internal company documents related to the company's knowledge of the history of failed pumps and crashes. She's angry at God and now wholly dismisses the notion of divine intervention as fantasy.

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