For years afterward, the scent of jet fuel and scorched hair were powerful sensory cues that transported Sadie Burkhalter Hurst back in time to the day when fire and death invaded her tranquil world. “Most of the time,” she said 40 years later, “you don’t remember it until things trigger those memories. And so many things will bring back the memories. Burning hair will just make me sick at my stomach. The emotions come back. You don’t want them to, you don’t ask for them, but you can’t stop them. To this day I can smell the odors and I can hear the sounds. And I can see those people.”
On Monday, April 4, 1977, Sadie was a young mother of three boys living in the small community of New Hope, in Paulding County. That lovely spring afternoon, she stood in her living room and witnessed a scene almost out of a horror film. A man was running across her front yard toward her, frantically waving his arms, his clothing ablaze. Behind him, downed electrical wires snaked around charred bodies. A traumatized young man with red hair and badly burned hands had taken refuge in the yellow Cadillac parked in Sadie’s driveway. Another man, engulfed in flames, was running blindly toward the creek behind her house. In the midst of it all, a shimmering blue line painted on a fragment of metal was all that remained to identify the mangled fuselage of a Southern Airways DC-9-31 passenger plane that had just crashed into the Burkhalters’ quiet front yard.
At 3:54 p.m. that day, a Southern Airways DC-9-31 carrying 81 passengers and four crew members took off under cloudy skies and in heavy rain from Huntsville International Airport, near Huntsville, Alabama, on its way to Atlanta. Sometime after 4 p.m., as it was flying over Rome, the aircraft entered a massive thunderstorm cell, part of a larger squall line — a chain of storms that can brew up a wild and dangerous concoction of rain, hail and lightning.
Far below to the east, in New Hope, the weather was idyllic. “It was an absolutely beautiful day,” recalled Sadie, who lived with her family in a brick ranch house set back from Ga. 92 Spur (now Ga. 381, known as the Dallas-Acworth Highway for the two cities it connects). “It was blue skies, white clouds, with a slight breeze, sun shining — just gorgeous.”
The warm spring weather had lured all three Burkhalter boys outside. Stanley, 14, and Steve, 12, were riding their bicycles up and down the driveway along with Tony Clayton, the son of New Hope volunteer fire chief John Clayton, who lived nearby. Eddie, 2 1/2, was peddling his tricycle along, trying to keep up with the older boys.
Sadie had just put on a pot of chili for supper when the phone rang. It was Emory, who worked in Atlanta for a firm that set shipping rates for trucking companies. When he was at work, he kept his office radio tuned to a station in Huntsville so that he could get a jump on news about threatening weather coming from the west on its way toward Paulding County. “He said, ‘Honey, we’ve got some bad weather coming. You need to get the kids in.’ So I hung up immediately,” said Sadie. “I walked down that front porch, and I called all the children. I said, ‘Boys, you need to come on in.’” She sent their friend Tony home.
Spring is tornado season in the South. The Burkhalters had an orderly preparation routine when twisters appeared out of nowhere and tore up everything in their path, and they had a convenient and safe refuge in their large basement. “I immediately went and got the radio,” said Steve, “and Mother and Stanley got the batteries for it — just to kind of prepare for what would happen.” Sadie was alert but calm as she sat near the large picture window in the living room at the front of the house. While the boys tended the radio, she scanned the sky for black clouds that would signal the approach of a severe storm. “But we didn’t see any of that,” she said. “It just wasn’t there yet.”
These were the last normal moments in a day that would change her life, leave its mark on an entire community, and send shock waves across and beyond the state.
The first warning of disaster came in the form of what Sadie later described as a “tremendous noise,” a roar emanating from somewhere nearby. What else could it be, she thought, but a twister bearing down on them? “Our eyes became huge,” she said, “and we just looked at each other, staring. We didn’t know what to do, and we ran immediately for the basement.”
Sadie was carrying Eddie down the steps when she was thrown forward by a powerful jolt. “The impact knocked me down the stairs, and my feet just hit the cement.”
Alarmed and determined to protect her children, Sadie handed Eddie to Steve and told the boys to go to one corner of the basement where the family took shelter in bad weather. As she made her way back upstairs, intent on closing the basement door to shut out any flying debris, she caught sight of something both eerie and frightening: flickering orange-red flames reflected in the glass storm door that opened onto the front porch.
Although the storm door was shut, Sadie realized she had left the front door open in her haste to get down to the basement. She ventured into the living room to investigate. As she stood looking out through the storm door, she was astonished to see that her front yard had been transformed into an anteroom of hell. Tall pine trees were burning and crackling like torches. A noxious plume of black smoke billowed in all directions, making it hard to see beyond her property line.
“The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see the neighbors. I couldn’t see Miss Bell’s house. I couldn’t see the Claytons’ house, and I couldn’t see the Pooles’ house. And I thought they were all dead.”
The first noise that the Burkhalters had heard was the DC-9 hitting Ga. 92 Spur, one-third of a mile south of their home. The plane came bouncing and hurtling down the two-lane highway, clipping trees and utility poles along the way and plowing into parked cars. Seven members of one family were killed when the plane struck their Toyota compact, which was parked in front of Newman’s Grocery; the plane then cartwheeled onto the Burkhalters’ front yard, where it broke into five sections. One of the townspeople killed on the ground in the crash was an elderly neighbor of Sadie’s, Berlie Mae Bell Craton, 71, who died when a tire from the DC-9 flew through the air and struck her on the head as she stood in her front yard.
Among the survivors was Cathy Cooper, one of the two flight attendants. As she emerged into the bright light of day, the 360-degree view that opened up before her was surreal and shocking.
“I was stunned. There is no other word to describe the view of the pieces of the plane burning, trees burning, passengers running in every direction. It was a nightmare scenario.” She was also surprised to find herself alive and unhurt. Her first thought was to get away from the plane, which she feared was about to explode. She jumped seven feet to the ground and ran from the burning wreckage.
Yet she knew she had to do everything in her power to assist the injured passengers. The best way to do that was to get to a telephone and summon help. “That’s why I went to the [Burkhalters’] house,” she said.
From her vantage point behind her front door, Sadie Burkhalter was trying to make sense of what she was witnessing.Nothing had prepared her for the role that chance chose for her: to be the first person encountered by more than a dozen traumatized and badly burned passengers fleeing the burning wreckage of what was the worst plane crash in the history of Georgia.
The air was thick with the hot, roiling fumes generated by burning plastic and jet fuel. Barefoot, bewildered passengers emerged from the cloud of smoke and came stumbling toward the Burkhalters’ house. Clad in ragged, fire-singed remnants of clothing, they resembled sleepwalkers. Almost all were suffering from shock or smoke inhalation.
As they drew near, Sadie realized the passengers were calling out to her. “The people were saying, ‘Help me, help me, please.’ But they weren’t screaming, they weren’t yelling, they were quiet,” because the smoke they had inhaled made their voices hoarse. Some could barely speak.
Sadie threw open the storm door and ushered in a stream of dazed and disoriented men and women. Their hair was singed or burned away entirely, their faces and hands blackened. Hoping to provide the most basic form of first aid — water — she ran to the kitchen and turned on the faucet in the sink. She was dismayed to see nothing come out. She didn’t know it at the time, but the crash had cut off water and knocked out electricity to her house and most of her neighbors’ homes.
Desperate to do something, her next impulse was to phone for help. “I ran for the telephone to let somebody know what was going on, but there was no telephone service. Then I ran to the bathroom for water,” trying to help one badly burned man. “I don’t know why I did that. I think I was going to put him in the shower.” She reached for the knob and turned it, but no water came out of the shower head. “In that minute,” she said, “I realized we didn’t have anything to help him.”
The smoke from the plane crash had surrounded the house and was engulfing her backyard, where she could see tongues of flame in the air through her back screen door.
At some point in the chaos, all three boys left the basement and wandered into the living room. “I knew something was wrong,” said Steve. “And I didn’t want to stay down in the basement. As I got to the top of the steps, there was a large man. He was badly burned. And he looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Help me.’ His voice was [almost] gone, but I could understand what he was saying. But at this point I was just literally petrified.”
Inside her home, Sadie could feel the intense heat radiating from the crash site. She became convinced that the house itself was in danger of catching fire and she was well aware that the people in her home needed to be taken to a hospital as soon as possible. Sadie decided that waiting for help to arrive was futile and that everyone in the house had to get out. She would lead the way out the back door, across the creek, and uphill to safety.”
She first took her three boys to a neighbor’s house up the hill for safekeeping. Then she went back downhill and urged anyone who could walk to leave and follow her. Not far south of the Burkhalters’ home was a small side road that ran east to west and connected to the main highway. Once she reached the road, Sadie began frantically flagging down cars that had slowed to get a close look at the crash, and, one by one, she convinced their drivers to transport the injured to the hospital.
Two men got into a car driven by Ilan Craton, the daughter-in-law of elderly Berlie Mae Bell Craton, who had been killed by a wheel of the crashing DC-9. Nearby, another man, wearing a light-blue sport coat, was walking barefoot over what Sadie feared were live electrical wires that lay tangled on the ground. She rushed forward and grabbed his arm to help him the rest of the way. “I just thought, if he goes, I’m going with him.” Sadie managed to lead him to the road, where she loaded him into another car that had pulled over.
Among the most severely injured passengers whom Sadie encountered was Edward Ray Brock, 31, who had escaped the wreckage by fighting his way through dense smoke to an opening in the wreckage and then ran through fire surrounding the shattered aircraft. Sadie tried to take Brock’s arms and pull him uphill. “At first he wouldn’t do it. He said that I hurt him too much. His hands were black, and his face was badly burned, and his hair was singed off. I looked at Edward — I didn’t know his name at the time — and I said, ‘You’re gonna be all right.’ Because I knew that the first things that would go when a face was badly burned were the nose and the eyelids, and his were still intact.”
One of the last to go to the hospital was Cooper. Hoping to help, she had caught up with Sadie, who was directing the traumatized survivors into cars. But Cooper herself was suffering from shock and needed medical attention, as Sadie recalled. “By the end of it all, Cathy was up there with me, but I couldn’t get her to sit down. I kept trying to put her in the next car that would come up. But she said, ‘No, I’ll wait.’ When Edward Brock finally got into a car and left, then she allowed me to get her into a car. She waited until the very last.”
As she watched Cooper being driven away, Sadie looked around and realized she was finally alone; she had done her best to protect her own children and cope with the nearly impossible crisis.
According to the official crash report later prepared by the National Transportation Safety Board, of the 63 people on the plane who died from their injuries, 20 died as a result of smoke inhalation and burns; 31 died of “extensive traumatic injuries,” and the remainder died of a combination of burns, smoke inhalation and injuries.
But it was gratifying for Sadie, and for others who did their utmost to comfort the injured and save lives, to learn that most of the crash victims who were transported to area hospitals eventually recovered. Among them was Edward Ray Brock, who Sadie visited at Kennestone Regional Medical Center.
“He remembered I’d said that he was going to be all right, and he hung on to that,” she recalled. Sadie returned the next day to bring him ham and side dishes she had prepared for him. “I was just trying to say, in my Southern way, that I cared about him.”
Excerpted from “Southern Storm: The Tragedy of Flight 242” by Samme Chittum (Smithsonian Books, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Smithsonian Books.