Remembering the Kenner plane crash and the ‘miracle baby’ pulled from the wreckage
Just after 4 p.m. on July 9, 1982, Pan Am Flight 759 took off from New Orleans International Airport’s east-west runway in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm. Shortly after takeoff, the Boeing 727 passenger jet encountered a microburst — a dangerous vortex of winds similar to a tornado — which caused the aircraft dramatically to lose altitude and speed. Just past Williams Boulevard, the plane hit a tree and slammed into the Morningside Park subdivision. All 145 passengers and crew members onboard were killed, along with eight people on the ground. Then, amid the wreckage, a cry went up: “We’ve got a survivor!” Against all odds, Kenner police officer Gerald Hibbs had found a 16-month-old child in the rubble — crying and scared, but unhurt aside from minor burns on her hands. Her name was Melissa Trahan, and she would become known as “the miracle baby” of Flight 759.
Trahan, whose mother and 4-year-old sister were killed when parts of the plane hit their house, moved with her father to Destrehan afterward. “I was so fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family, including my grandparents from both sides,” Trahan said in a 2014 interview with The Times-Picayune. In addition to earning a BA from Louisiana State University and an MA from UNO, she is now married and has a daughter, whom she named Melanie — after her mother.
- “I flew from the back of the house, past the sidewalk, landed in carpeting. It rolled up, formed an air bubble, a water pipe burst around it, and my baby mattress landed on top,” Trahan said in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the crash, in describing how she survived.
- Pan Am flight 759 was the second-deadliest plane crash in U.S. history at the time. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, it is still the eighth-deadliest aviation accident in North America.
- After clipping two houses, setting them on fire, the plane hit the ground and slid for three blocks, eventually coming to a rest at 17th and Taylor streets. In all, 15 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
- “The plane just fell out of the sky,” eyewitness Mark Uhle told The Times-Picayune at the time. “It hit. The plane was in pieces. I didn’t see anybody come out of the houses. Nobody came out of the plane.”
- A memorial sits in a garden at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, about a mile from the crash site. Tiles bearing names of each of the deceased adorn a low circular wall, which was dedicated to the victims in 2012.
- After a 9-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board made 20 recommendations to improve the safety of future flights, including expansion of sensors to detect wind shear. The airport also entered into a revenue-sharing plan with St. Charles Parish so the runway could be extended into LaBranche Wetlands.
- Pan Am accepted responsibility for the disaster on May 13, 1983, and paid an undisclosed settlement to surviving families of victims.
- The 14-year-old plane had arrived in New Orleans from Miami and was taking off for a flight to Las Vegas and San Diego.
- New Orleans filmmaker Royd Anderson’s documentary “Pan Am Flight 759,” released in 2012, recounted the flight and its aftermath.
- Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard had been inaugurated just eight days before the disaster.
- Citizens of 23 countries were among the dead.
New Orleans is no stranger to tragedy. Likewise, it’s no stranger to grappling with how to move on after them. One key component, as represented by Trahan, is hope — hope that all is never lost, that rays of light can be found in the darkest of times, and that miracles can be found even amid times of great pain. In 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the crash of Flight 759, Trahan addressed other on-the-ground survivors as well as families of those who died in the crash. She might as well have been addressing us all: “We are all in this together,” she said. “We are all survivors. … We are not alone.”