U-M staff recalls unforgettable 'miracle child' on anniversary of deadly Flight 255 crash
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.
The Associated Press
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.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
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.
Dale Atkins | The Associated Press
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 AnnArbor.com. Reach her at (734) 623-2552, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.