SI Vault
Edited by Jack McCallum
November 22, 1993
Passenger 23E
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November 22, 1993


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Passenger 23E

Fearless, the new Warner Bros. movie about the survivors of a plane crash, opens with a shot of Jeff Bridges walking away from the wreckage out of a cornfield with a baby in his arms. Watching the movie in a Denver theater two weeks ago, Jerry Schemmel, the radio play-by-play voice of the Denver Nuggets, felt a wrenching jolt of recognition. On July 19, 1989, Schemmel, a survivor of one of the most famous plane crashes on American soil, walked out of an Iowa cornfield from the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 232 with a baby in his arms.

Schemmel, then the deputy commissioner and legal counsel of the Continental Basketball Association, and his best friend, Jay Ramsdell, CBA commissioner at the time, had boarded UA 232 in Denver after an earlier flight had been canceled because of mechanical difficulties. The last two passengers to board the DC-10, they took the only available seats, 30G (Ramsdell) and 23E (Schemmel). About one hour into the flight an explosion in one of the engines crippled the craft's hydraulic systems, and the plane crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa. Schemmel, still strapped to his chair, viewed the horror around him. "The guy next to me was dead," he remembers. "The woman across from me was gone. The flight attendant who'd been in the jump seat facing me was gone." So was Ramsdell, one of 112 victims of the flight.

Schemmel didn't take time to mourn. He and a few others, including two-time U.S. Olympic equestrian Michael Matz, pulled dazed passengers to their feet and literally pushed them out the door. After a few minutes amid the swirling smoke and confusion, Schemmel heard a baby crying from inside the wreckage, crawled back into the plane on all fours and found the child partially buried in debris. "I pulled her up, got on my feet, got out and took off running," he says. The baby, Sabrina Michaelson, was reunited with her mother and father, Lori and Mark, who also survived the crash.

Initially Schemmel felt violated by the film, as if his life had been "ripped off," but upon reflection he has softened. "If it comes across as a way to understand how a crash victim might feel, that's fine," he says. "But I think the filmmakers exploited the people involved. They should have informed us the movie was being made, so we would've been ready for it."

Rafael Yglesias, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel on which the film was based, says that the Bridges character is not based on any single individual and that he drew his material from news accounts of several crashes.

Schemmel docs give the film a thumbs-up for its depiction of the crash from inside the aircraft. "People ask me what it was like," says Schemmel, "and I say, 'Take a look at that last scene, when Bridges flashes back to the crash. That's what I saw from seat 23E.' "

Situation Norm-al

Only six weeks into his first season in Texas, Dallas Star owner Norm Green is threatening to move his NHL franchise. He has expressed disenchantment with the absence of skyboxes in Reunion Arena, with the Stars' attendance (about 14,200 per game) and with the NBA Mavericks' control of arena advertising.

Last season, after complaining of flagging attendance and a cumbersome lease agreement, Green moved his team from the hockey-friendly Twin Cities to the football-mad Lone Star State, and, all things considered, the Stars aren't doing that badly. Their record at week's end stood at 8-8-4, and attendance, while below Green's absurd projections (he wanted to sell 12,500 season tickets), is acceptable in a town that lives and dies with the oblate spheroid.

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