An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

In the face of danger: Airman pulls passengers from Continental Airlines wreckage

  • Published
  • By Gabriel Myers
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
The story of the former Air Force pilot who displayed skill and courage when he successfully landed a stricken US Airways Flight in the Hudson River has captured headlines and hearts across the country, and rightfully so since his actions and selflessness saved the lives of his crew and passengers that day.

It's truly difficult to gage how each of us would react in the face of danger. Would we act with integrity under intense, dire circumstances? Would we risk going back into a burning plane to save someone else?

On Dec. 20, 2008, Lt. Col. Rich Lowe, Air Force Reserve Command 39th Flying Training Squadron, was faced with those exact circumstances when he was a passenger on Continental Airlines Flight 1404 that crashed on take-off at Denver International Airport.

Colonel Lowe, in addition to being a 12th Flying Training Wing instructor pilot is also a pilot for Continental Airlines. On the day of the crash he was a passenger on this flight to Houston after his originally scheduled flight to Newark had been cancelled.

"Myself and another pilot from Continental were deadheading (aircrew who are flying on but not operating the aircraft) to Houston and we were given two seats, one in coach and one in first class," Colonel Lowe said. "I offered to take the coach seat so I was seated in 8D."

"When we pushed back at 6 p.m., the taxiways appeared to have hard-packed snow on them and the runways were clear. There was a crosswind at the airport of around 30 knots," he said.

As the aircraft approached the runway, Colonel Lowe said he settled into his seat and opened a book. Within seconds, he would be forced to make critical decisions the rest of us can only hope to avoid.

"We started down the runway and I was reading my book," he said. "As we were approaching about 100 knots, I felt the aircraft suddenly yaw hard to the left. We were traveling very fast and I remember the woman next to me grabbed my arm and looked at me as if to say 'Is that normal?'"

At this point Colonel Lowe said all he could do was process what was happening. He said it was all happening so quickly, he really didn't have time to think about anything else. As the aircraft moved sideways he could feel the wheels skipping down the runway and heard the engines at full throttle.

"The only thought in my head was, 'My God, we're out of control," he said. "I could hear rocks and debris hitting the underside of the aircraft, and I could feel the pilot applying full right rudder and tiller in an attempt to correct. People were beginning to panic as I heard screams, and I remember seeing luggage, personal items and people bouncing around the cabin."

He said he also remembered thinking about how fast the aircraft was moving and noticed that even after leaving the runway how it seemed as though it was not slowing down. The aircraft skidded off the runway, over a taxiway, across an access road, and was briefly airborne and caught fire before finally coming to rest in a ravine.

"Once we stopped, everyone seemed to go into self-preservation mode," Colonel Lowe said. "The guy sitting in the exit row near the door opened it so quickly you thought that he had practiced it 100 times. People were climbing over seats and knocking other people over to try to get off the plane. The passengers were very concerned that the aircraft was going to explode.

"The aircraft was on fire on the right side, so everyone hurried to the exit over the left wing, creating a bottleneck," he said. "A lot of people were injured and I was motioned by the first-class flight attendant to come to the front of the aircraft where the other passengers had already exited."

He then grabbed two women to come with him as he moved toward the front, and assisted them in exiting the plane. After seeing the women were safely off, he went back and assisted with the egress of the cockpit crew, who were injured and badly shaken after what had happened. Following their safe egress, Colonel Lowe re-entered the aircraft to assist the first-class flight attendant who, it appeared, had broken her ankle. When the flight attendant was safely outside of the aircraft, he went back one last time against his better judgment (due to the growing fire and smell of fuel) to see if he could help anyone still onboard, and noticed that only the deadheading captain and the aft galley flight attendant were still on the aircraft.

With one last sweep of the aircraft amid fire and increasing smoke and melting windows, he exited safely. Although there were many injuries -- some very serious -- everyone made it out alive in what I estimate to be under 90 seconds; a true testament to the training and professionalism of the inflight cabin crew, the colonel said. 

A fire station was about 200 yards away from where the aircraft came to a stop. Within minutes first responders were on the scene assisting passengers and extinguishing the fire. 

"We were all very fortunate to be alive and the folks at Denver really had a great contingency plan after the incident," the colonel said. "They were attentive to our needs and did everything in their power to make us as comfortable as possible. It was a scary situation and we were very lucky that day.

"You never really know how you're going to react when faced with that type of situation, I just tried to process what was going on and get myself and others to safety," he said.

The accident is still under investigation as to the cause, and Colonel Lowe admits he was a little apprehensive the next time he was a passanger onboard an aircraft that was preparing for take-off, but considers himself very fortunate to be alive and flying again.

"When I heard the story, I was amazed that everyone survived but was not surprised to hear Rich was right there helping get folks to safety," said Lt. Col. Jeffery Nicks, 39th FTS commander. "He's a fantastic Airman, wingman and person, and I wouldn't have expected anything less."

Colonel Lowe doesn't consider himself a hero, just a person who was forced to assess and react to a life-threatening situation, and since he was not seriously injured, did what he could to help his fellow passengers.

"No one knows how they will react in a situation like that, but it is not surprising that Rich remained calm and took charge of the situation," said Lt. Col. Eric Cain, 559th FTS commander. "The people on that plane were lucky Rich was on that flight."