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Posted on Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

U-M staff recalls unforgettable 'miracle child' on anniversary of deadly Flight 255 crash

By Amy Biolchini

Many have wondered what became of 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan.

The sole survivor of the horrific Flight 255 plane crash near Detroit Metro Airport that killed her mother, father and 6-year-old brother, Cecelia, along with her extended family, has remained silent for 25 years.


Cecelia Cichan in October 1987.

The Associated Press

But for the first time, the people at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor who worked to save and protect Cecelia have been able to hear the voice of the girl — now a married woman — in an interview Cecelia gave for a documentary entitled “Sole Survivor.”

The work by filmmaker Ky Dickens is slated for completion in September, and offers the stories of 14 people who were the only survivors of deadly commercial plane crashes. Portions of the interview with Cecelia have been aired in television reports.

With a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist, Cecelia said in the documentary she thinks of the crash every day.

The evening of Aug. 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 took off from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, departing for Phoenix. The passengers included Tempe, Ariz., residents Cecelia and parents, Paula and Michael, and brother, David. The plane immediately began tipping from side to side, crashed into several light posts, grazed a rental car building, hit an overpass on Interstate 94 in Romulus and exploded. Killed were 156 people — two of whom were on the ground.

Romulus firefighter John Thiede rescued Cecelia after hearing her faint cries from the wreckage. The "miracle child" soon became the focus of national and international attention.

Cecelia received her treatment at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, thrusting the staff into an enormous, glaring media spotlight.

There were children in Mott's pediatric intensive care unit that day who were much sicker than the seriously injured Cecelia — but the little girl was “special,” said Susan Sefansky, a clinical social worker for the department.


Susan Sefansky, coordinator for the Office of Decedant Affairs at University of Michigan Hospital, stands Wednesday outside the old entrance to the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Sefansky was working as a social worker in the ICU at Mott when Cecilia Cichan was being treated there in 1987.

Angela J. Cesere |

Sefansky, now coordinator for the Office of Decedent Affairs, was responsible for representing Cecelia’s family during the time they were at the hospital and helping them cope with the loss of Cecelia’s parents and brother.

Sefansky said she distinctly remembers walking in to the hospital the morning after the crash.

“I’ve been thinking about this … from time to time, a lot,” Sefansky said. “We were pretty sheltered on our end of things. We couldn’t conceive of 156 people being killed; we could only focus on the little girl. As it became this media circus, that became a different issue.”

A deluge of phone calls swamped the hospital’s office from people wanting to know if the young girl rescued from the crash might be a relative.

Interviews, photos and many personal details were kept private during the time she was there due to the family’s request.

The first press conference convened days after the crash. For Michael Harrison, now the director of public relations and marketing at UMHS, the day after the crash was his first day on the job.

Both Sefansky and Harrison recalled the press conference as one that remains unmatched in their careers.

“The press conference was the scariest thing I’ve ever been to,” Sefansky said.

Harrison said the room was absolutely packed and the pressure was “unrelenting.”

“We had the only good news,” Harrison said.

Working with both sides of Cecelia’s family to cope with the loss of their loved ones while planning for Cecelia’s future, Sefansky said the decision for Cecelia to live with her mother’s married sister in Birmingham, Alabama was a “non-issue.”

“I got to know them all — they were an amazing group of people,” Sefansky said.

But even though hospital staff bonded closely with Cecelia’s family they have not not stayed in touch over the years.

Sefansky herself had minimal interaction with Cecelia, as the girl was not communicable during her week in the ICU before being moved to the burn unit. Dr. Jai Prasad led the team that cared for Cecelia.

“I was just another stranger,” Sefansky said.


The scene of the wreckage along Middlebelt Road near Insterstate 94 in Romulus after a Northwest Airlines Flight 255, en route to California via Phoenix, crashed Aug. 16, 1987 shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Dale Atkins | The Associated Press

Cecelia’s extended family made the decision to shield her from the media frenzy — but the world reached out in any way it could.

Flowers, clothing and toys poured in to the hospital for the little girl and her family — so many they filled an entire multipurpose room.

“They were humbled by it,” Sefansky said.

Cecelia’s family decided to give the gifts away to other children in the ICU. There were so many that Sefansky was able to take some home to her own children.

To this day, Sefansky said she still has the toys, even though her children are grown up. Her daughter is the same age as Cecelia.

Flight 255 has not been forgotten at the hospital. The number is all it takes to bring back memories — and Sefansky said over the years, she’s met more and more people who were involved with the event in some capacity.

“It still feels very special; anyone you talk to — you don’t forget you were a part of it,” Sefansky said. “I remember how proud I was of all of us that we pulled it off and kept her safe.”

Family members of those lost in the crash will begin gathering about 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the memorial site on a hill at I-94 and Middlebelt Road in Romulus. There will be a simple service at 8:46 p.m. — the exact time of the crash — that includes the reading of the names of their lost loved ones.

The filmmaker of the documentary will be present at the memorial about 6:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss her work.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 1:18 p.m.

The one thing I remember from that crash is that they said her mother shielded her. Meaning Cecelia was wrapped in her mother when she was found. I remember that so distinctly. But I have not heard anything abut that since. I too have thought about that little girl as well. Not sure why, but so glad to see the family did shield her and she is coming out on her own to tell her story. Wow. What a lovely young lady she turned out to be. I heard there was a memorial on Middle Belt but haven't seen it. Where is it located. I too will see that movie as well. Thanks for the story.


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 11:33 p.m.

@Ken the plane crash was due to pilot error


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 6:17 p.m.

They said the pilot did not do any pre fight checks. They kind of took off without checking it out. So sad really.


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 8:41 p.m.

Living on Ford Lake at the time, we had several thunder storms throughout the day. As I recall, we had a pretty good storm just before the crash; always thought that maybe the plane had been hit by lightning. My wife and I just kept holding our oldest son (now 26) could not believe what had happened. We followed Channel 4 news, felt so helpless!!


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 7:47 p.m.

That day and the tragic event has a special meaning for me. Aug 16 (today) is my birthday. Not only that but I was scheduled to take a Northwest flight the following day. I was moving to Florida from Ypsilanti. I was at a going away party in my honor when somebody walked in and said there had been a horrible plane crash at Metro airport and first reports said there were no survivors. As more details were available it became known that it was a Northwest flight. Everyone I knew said things like "you aren't still going are you?" Even though it took me nearly 2 hours to get from Ypsilanti and into the airport terminal I was able to catch my flight and it was very safe. It was an experience I will never forget seeing the still smoldering scene as my flight flew over the crash scene. The flight was a nail biter and for quite a while I had new found fear every time I took a flight.


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 5:51 p.m.

I remember this like it was yesterday....... A friend and I were driving down I94 West. As we approached the airport we saw oncoming headlights of police cars rushing towards us. The police cars stopped about a half mile before reaching traffic and blocked the remainder of the highway. An officer jumped out of the car and began directing traffic to exit off the highway. We opened the window and asked what was going on and he replied "there's been a plane crash"..........


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 3:46 p.m.

A friend of mine was on the committee that, what sounded like to me, screened the gifts, donations. She relayed to me that one "sick" individual, and sounds as if he was successful in his efforts, posed as a doctor, wanting to be "the one" to break it to this little girl that her parents had perished in this accident. I am only going on what I was told, and I believe her. I am sure there are many, many stories to tell surrounding this horrific accident and this amazing survivor story. Thank you for the article.

Unusual Suspect

Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 1:39 p.m.

I think of this every time I pass Middlebelt (one word, not two) Road.

Albert Howard

Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

@Amy Biolchini well done

Wolf's Bane

Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 12:54 p.m.

I remember this crash well because it killed a friend's dad and a good friend of my neighbor. I'll never forget the carnage.


Thu, Aug 16, 2012 : 11:38 a.m.

Thanks for the sensitive and timely article. I remember it like it was yesterday. One of my high school classmates was on the plane and I will never forget any of them. Every time I fly, I count to 120 to know that I passed the doomed time.