Aug. 16--At 8:46 Tonight -- the moment when Northwest Flight 255 crashed 25 years ago just after takeoff from Detroit Metro Airport -- the Rev. James Wieging will pray and recite the names of the 156 people who died.
Wieging, a Catholic priest and police chaplain called to the chaos that night to counsel families, will stand on an embankment off Middlebelt Road that abuts I-94 in Romulus. It's where the plane fell and all but a 4-year-old passenger perished, where saplings planted for the victims are now hardy and secure.
-- From the archives: Flight 255: The NTSB points out important lessons that must be heeded -- Flight 255's lone survivor: 20 years after crash, angels still protect her life
As the priest calls out the names of lives lost, a relative or Flight 255 support group member will step forward and turn on a penlight or flashlight in the twilight sky.
When the name of Army Lt. Christine Hoffman is called, her sister from Erie, Pa., will step up.
"I felt like I was letting my sister down if I didn't come. I didn't want anybody else to hold the light," said Aimee Hoffman-Moore, 49.
"I've been saying, no matter what I do, I'll be there for the 25th," Hoffman-Moore said. She came for the first, fifth and 10th anniversaries with family members.
The crash's anniversary draws attention every year, but more so now, in part because of the semi-public emergence of Cecelia Cichan, the only person aboard the plane to survive.
The public caught a glimpse of a grown-up Cichan, now 29, because of a documentary, "Sole Survivor," which features her and other plane crash survivors.
WDIV-TV (Channel 4) aired excerpts from Cichan's comments in the documentary, which showed Cichan, a University of Alabama graduate, with a tattoo of a plane on her wrist.
Cichan, who lost her parents and brother, won't be at the memorial service, said Tony Zanger, 51, of Monroe, a memorial organizer.
Zanger, who lost his brother and future sister-in-law in the crash, said he has been in touch via e-mail with Cichan, who married in 2006.
"Sole Survivor" filmmaker Ky Dickens will attend tonight's memorial service, according to her publicist, Kristen Kaza.
Kaza said the film has cost about $200,000 to make, much of it financed through donations and fund-raisers. The filmmakers are trying to raise an additional $20,000 to finish the effort via a Kickstarter.com campaign.
Kaza said the aim is to release the documentary early next year, and arrange a showing in metro Detroit.
Along with holding an annual memorial service, the Flight 255 support group members helped form the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation, and successfully lobbied Congress to pass the 1996 Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act.
The legislation established guidelines for how airlines should deal with families after crashes and allotted federal money to provide financial and medical help to victims.
At every memorial service, those assembled pray for Cichan. They also have prayed for Lawrence Favio of Lincoln Park, an airport baggage handler heading home that night who was burned on 40% of his body by plane debris. Favio died in 2002, according to a public record and a family member who asked not to be identified.
Two motorists on the ground also died that night: Sharon Ann Schweitzer, 34, of Dearborn Heights, a top saleswoman for JCPenney, and Eddie Lee Galloway, 38, a General Motors employee from Detroit.
"Every year, we find somebody new who shows up for the first time," Zanger said.
Kay Gleason was scouring her Shelby Township home Wednesday looking for the penlight she will hold when Patrick Gleason's name is called. She will hold it aloft to remember her husband, a GM engineer and father of two sons.
"I cry every Aug. 16," said Gleason, 70. "They could take away Aug. 16 from the calendar, and I wouldn't mind it."
Every year but one, she has been to the plane crash site -- "we call it The Hill" -- for the memorial service.
Federal investigators blamed the plane crash -- the largest ever in Michigan and one of the deadliest in U.S. history -- on the failure of pilots to deploy the plane's flaps and slats for takeoff, but said a lack of electricity to the takeoff warning system, which couldn't be explained, also contributed.
The one ray of light
Romulus Fire Lt. John Thiede also comes to the memorial service every year. He didn't lose a loved one in the flight. But he saved one.
Thiede, now 46, was a rookie firefighter in 1987 when Flight 255 crashed. He and two others, Dan Kish and Roy Brindamour, were credited with finding and rescuing Cichan.
Thiede said he and Kish arrived moments after the crash and hooked up hoses to spray the fire. Kish was the one who heard moaning.
"I didn't hear it, and I kept spraying, and then he (heard it) again," Thiede recounted Wednesday. The two began searching near the viaduct at Middlebelt and I-94, with Kish headed one way and Thiede headed the other.
Thiede found Cichan strapped into a booster seat attached to an airline seat.
Thiede said he and the others get the attention from the news media attention, but everyone did their jobs that night.
Thiede has since come to know Cichan as an adult, after Cichan reached out to the Flight 255 support group in 2005 to let them know she was doing well.
"I was invited to her wedding," Thiede said. "That's the first time I'd seen her since she left the hospital."
He said it was awkward at first, but after 10 minutes or so, it seemed normal.
Cichan, who was raised in Alabama by her maternal aunt and uncle, has never been to the memorial service, but has visited Romulus, lunching with Thiede and attending a Tigers game.
"It's mostly like a big brother relationship," Thiede said. "She's a big Alabama fan, and I keep telling her how Michigan is going to beat Alabama.
Copyright 2012 - Detroit Free Press
McClatchy-Tribune News Service