Paying Back a Hero

updated 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Al Haynes never wanted thanks for his heroism. For the unassuming United Airlines captain, pulling off the astonishing emergency landing that saved the lives of 184 of the 296 people aboard his crippled DC-10 on July 19, 1989, was reward enough. But 15 years after that crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, some survivors of Flight 232 have found a way to repay him: They're donating money to finance a bone marrow transplant for his critically ill daughter, Laurie Arguello. "I think anybody who was connected to the crash probably feels like they want to help him," says Jerry Schemmel of the now-retired Haynes, 72. "He helped save our lives, and we have a chance now to help save a life in his family." Says fellow survivor Charlie Martz: "I sent some e-mails out to friends, people who were on that flight, and I said, 'It's payback time.'"

In just two months of spreading the word, survivors of Flight 232 have helped to raise almost the entire $256,000 that insurance would not cover for Arguello's transplant and after-care. (Substantial contributions are also coming in from airline pilots and flight attendants, whose unions have publicized the case to their membership.) "When we first heard about the cost, we thought, how are we possibly going to raise that much money?" says Arguello, 39, who was diagnosed in May 2002 with aplastic anemia, a relatively rare disease in which the bone marrow stops producing enough blood cells. "If it wasn't for Dad, I don't know how we could have done it."

A sentiment shared by the survivors of United Flight 232. On the way from Denver to Chicago, one of the engines of Haynes's DC-10 blew up, destroying all steering and hydraulics. Hurtling out of control at 37,000 ft., Haynes and his flight crew managed to bring the DC-10 down by varying the thrust on his two remaining engines. (Another airliner that suffered similar catastrophic failure, a Japan Airlines 747, crashed into a mountainside in August 1985, killing 520.) "They were flying a brick—those guys faced unbelievable odds to get that thing anywhere close to the ground," says Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Airline Pilots Association. "This was just an unbelievable feat of airmanship."

Survivors say it would have been unthinkable not to help Haynes, a man many have come to regard almost as family. Following the crash, the Seattle-based pilot "reached out to everybody," recalls Joan Leonard Wernick, 59, who lived through Flight 232 along with her husband, Pete, and their then 6-year-old son. "He just did everything in the world possible to help make our son, and us too, comfortable with airplanes again. We got aboard a flight simulator. He did a lot of things behind the scenes that were extremely kind to the people who were on that flight." After finding out about Laurie's need for a transplant during their Christmas call to Haynes, the Wernicks made a donation. "And we'll give another donation," Joan says, "if the transplant falls short." (With two suitable donors located, Laurie, mother of a 9-year-old son, will undergo the procedure as soon as her temporarily stabilized blood count drops. It will take her a year to recover if her body does not reject the transplant.)

Strengthening the bond between Haynes and those he saved is "the way he's dedicated his life to the people who died in the crash," says survivor Schemmel. Following his 1991 retirement, Haynes—who was initially racked with "survivor guilt" over those who perished—has traveled the country giving as many as 100 talks a year about the lessons of Flight 232. (Although the crash was a freak accident, he believes a special blend of skills and teamwork helped avert an even worse disaster.) Until December he donated all of his earnings to four scholarship funds; now his fees go to his daughter's transplant kitty. "I've listened to his talks, and he says, 'I'm doing this to keep the memory of 112 people alive,'" says Schemmel. "To me that's heroic."

To Haynes, however, "hero is a highly overused word." He regards his talks—the themes are luck, communication, preparation, execution and cooperation—as therapeutic, a way of sharing the hard-won wisdom that has kept his family grounded through more than their share of tragedies. In 1996 the elder of Haynes's two sons, 37-year-old Tony, was killed when his motorcycle slid under a car. Three years later Haynes's wife, Darlene, 67, died following complications from a ruptured colon. Says Joan Wernick: "It's amazing what has happened to Al, and he still keeps going forward."

Now there's his only daughter's illness. Haynes is painfully aware that Laurie's life maybe spared in large part because of his role in an accident that killed so many. "I hate to think about it," says Haynes, sitting in his modest house five minutes from the local airport. "But 'What if?' is no good. Looking back is no good. You just have to play the cards you're dealt."

Pam Lambert. Jason Bane in Seattle

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