CP MOTORSPORTS: TOM HIGGINS: THE WREATHS OF MIDDLEBELT ROAD
I am certain that the wreaths will be out there on the grassy knoll as always in mid-August, ribbons waving softly in a slight summer breeze.
It will be for 29 years now, that the flowers have appeared on Middlebelt Road, just a mile or so from Detroit Metro Airport.
They are placed there in memory of the lives lost on the awful Sunday evening in 1987—August 16–when Northwest Airlines Flight 255 bound for Phoenix went down at that spot, killing 154 of the 155 people on board. Two people on the ground also died.
Dozens of horrified eye witnesses saw the crash. I was one of them. In a journalism career of 59 years now, I’ve seen incidents that spawned every emotion. This was by far the most terrifying and horrific.
Along with two fellow motorsports reporters, my friends Steve Waid and Gary McCredie, I had driven in from the Champion 400 at Michigan International Speedway near Brooklyn, where Bill Elliott had won the Champion 400..
Just after we checked into a motel near the airport to await an early morning flight to Charlotte the next day, the world exploded 200 yards away.
Agonizing questions raced through the mind: What airline was it? Where was the plane headed? Did I have friends aboard it?
I thought at the time that my 30 years of covering stock car racing had left me at least somewhat jaded to the sight of sudden death. I`d seen several drivers, some close acquaintances, die violently on tracks.
I was wrong.
Everything that happened in the tragic twilight of that Sunday haunted me nightly for months. The thick black smoke. The wailing sirens. The long line of ambulances that finally told the worst.
But I also remember to this day the poignant incidents that demonstrated the better aspects of human nature.
There was the fierce-looking, giant of a motel proprietor softly calming a sobbing, distraught young woman. A Northwest flight attendant, she desperately had been wandering the lobby, asking the location of the nearest hospital in order to go there and give blood. He gently took her in his arms and told her that “your donation can`t help anyone on that plane.“
There was a young mother, whose stalled car was struck and incinerated by the aircraft, trying to get a phone call through to let her family know that she and a weeks-old baby had left the vehicle minutes before the crash. They were assisted to the motel by a homeless man.
For years, I dreaded going to Detroit for the August race at MIS.
Each time it continued to make no sense to me that later investigation revealed that somehow the wing flaps on that Northwest Airlines MD80 jet weren`t properly put down for takeoff, causing the deaths of 156 people.
A day after the airliner`s fatal fall, a radio talk show host called me from Phoenix. “Most of those people on that plane were from Arizona,“ she said. “The pain will endure in The Valley of The Sun for a long time.“
It endures elsewhere, too.
The wreaths on Middlebelt Road are signs of that and also something more that’s reassuring…
Love endures, too.