Steady Under Fire
Fech—who became a flight attendant less than three years ago—remembers thinking, "We're in trouble. We're in real trouble." Then, for the next 9 minutes and 20 seconds, as the crippled aircraft plowed toward a fiery crash in a Georgia hayfield, she remained so levelheaded that many survivors of the crash, which killed eight people, say they owe their lives to her remarkable cool. "She was almost scary calm," says passenger Byron Gaskill, 57, an engineer from Munroe Falls, Ohio. "There was no screaming or sobbing or panic. Robin just took charge." Adds Alan Barring-ton, 35, a human resources manager from Roswell, Ga.: "I can't forget her face, so calm and reassuring. We all felt there was something terribly wrong. So how could she have maintained her composure?"
Fech isn't sure, but at the time she realized she needed to focus attention away from the chilling sight on the left wing. "They didn't need to be sitting and looking at that," says Fech, who quickly snapped down the window shades on that side. "The passengers were looking at me with eyes as big as saucers," she told PEOPLE in her first interview since the crash. "I was trying to put their minds at ease."
On the phone, First Officer Matt Warmerdam told Fech they were turning back toward Atlanta. "I prepared for the worst," she says. She showed passengers how to brace for an emergency touchdown (the position can vary depending on seat location), then went from row to row to have them demonstrate. She reassured everyone that emergency landings were practiced all the time, stressing that the plane was designed to fly on just one engine. What she didn't know was that the damaged propeller unit had somehow shifted out of place, making it nearly impossible to control the aircraft. (Investigators, who say metal fatigue caused a blade to fracture, should determine by next spring why the plane couldn't recover.)
Oddly, the ride in the crippled plane wasn't too bumpy, and an overcast sky made it impossible for passengers to know how quickly they were falling. Still, Fech says, "it was obvious everyone was scared—just so scared. But no one was losing it. Not a scream. Not a peep."
Not, that is, until they spotted the tops of the pine trees. Without warning from the cockpit, the plane careened toward impact. With seconds to spare, Fech strapped herself into the attendant's jump seat, yelling "Hang on, you all! It's going to be rough!" The plane smashed into a field just beyond the trees. Fech can remember saying, "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!" before she was knocked out. She was unconscious as the craft broke into pieces, the cockpit and first two rows sliding in one direction, the cabin in another.
Fech came to minutes later, bleeding, disoriented and surrounded by the fire caused by spilled fuel. She shouted to passengers to flee the inferno (not realizing that many already had), then pried off her safety belt and leaped through the shattered fuselage to safety outside. "Everybody was in flames," she says, her voice breaking at the memory. "I can't describe it." With help she rolled a woman to safety, and, spotting a man in burning jeans, she struggled to remove his melting tennis shoes and pants. "But I couldn't, I just couldn't," says Fech, who doesn't know his fate.
Within minutes of the crash, rescue crews arrived. Running on adrenaline, Fech kept working—going from passenger to passenger to ensure they were getting help. Finally, EMS workers got her to mind her own injuries: a severe head wound and a broken right arm. Not until the ambulance ride across the field did she shed a few quiet tears.
In all, four passengers plus pilot Ed Gannaway were killed that day; three more passengers died in the hospital in the days and weeks that followed. Survivor Chuck LeMay, 42, an Air Force major from Bellevue, Neb., who had been headed for Biloxi, Miss., for a weather conference, says the death toll could have been worse if not for Fech. "You know, you can be trained in procedures," he says, "but the truth is, you never really know how you're going to behave in a situation like that until you're right in the middle of it."
Looking back, Fech says the self-discipline she learned as a dancer helped prepare her for the crisis. Growing up in Athens and Lumber City, Ga., she took up ballet as a girl and eventually turned to jazz-style dance. She and her younger sister Clemmie, 35, taught at an Athens dance academy run by their mother, Claudette Underwood, who divorced their father, Duane, a catfish farmer and ex-Navy fighter pilot, when Robin was in high school. (Duane died in May.) After her own 1992 divorce, Fech says, "I knew I had to be involved with people," so she enrolled in ASA's three-week flight-attendant course.
These days, the closest Fech gets to flight is watching flocks of Canada geese soar above the deck of her apartment in Warner Robins, Ga., near Macon. Though her right arm is still in a brace, the head injuries have mostly healed. "The physical part is going well, but I haven't begun to deal with the emotional part," says Fech, who has begun seeing a therapist recently to work through the trauma. Will she continue to fly? "Boy, have I been asked that question a lot," she says. "I'd like to say yes, but I still don't know."
She does know that she feels an almost preternatural pull toward the survivors, a desire that first came right after the crash. "It's a very focused kind of love, and it was stronger than anything I've ever felt," she says. "I just know I want to see everyone again, to hug everyone who was there." She can be certain the hugs will be returned.
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Warner Robins