It’s been almost 30 years since United Flight 232 left Denver’s Stapleton Airport. The plane was bound for Chicago O'Hare on a clear summer day, but it never made it.
An hour after takeoff, the plane's hydraulic system failed and the pilots made an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.
Out of the 296 people on board, 184 survived the crash. The story of those survivors is coming to the stage in Boulder as Vanessa Stalling’s “United Flight 232” makes its regional debut at The Dairy Arts Center on Friday, Feb. 15.
One of those survivors is Susan White, a flight attendant who served on board that harrowing day in July of 1989. She attended one of the final dress rehearsals for The Catamounts presentation of “United Flight 232,” but show director Amanda Berg Wilson wanted to keep White's presence a secret from the cast.
“I haven’t told the cast that you’re coming tonight,” Berg Wilson said with a laugh. “They told me that they’re really excited to meet all of the people that they portray but they don’t want to know in advance. They only want to know after you’ve already seen the show.”
Berg Wilson describes the play as being less about one specific plane crash and more about how people take care of each other.
“It’s just a reminder that in moments of crisis we have that in us,” she said. “And so if we can do it in moments of crisis, why not do it in moments where we’re not in crisis?”
Berg Wilson chatted with Susan White in The Dairy Arts Center lobby before the rehearsal. Berg Wilson couldn’t believe how White and her crew kept calm and still did their jobs during catastrophe.
“Continuing to do your jobs even in the worst possible moment is so comforting to me and this piece is really about people who helped one another,” Berg Wilson said. She started to get teary-eyed, and quickly apologized to White for getting choked up.
White jumped in to reassure her.
“No, I love that you said that about people helping people,” White said. “Because that day I witnessed so many strangers, passengers helping other passengers to get out … And it is a warm feeling to know that people are generally, I think they are good people.”
White said the people of Sioux City were so welcoming after the crash. She said one woman even offered to let White stay with her because of a shortage of hotel rooms in town.
The dress rehearsal wasn’t the first time White had seen the play. She, and much of the flight crew saw the show in Chicago. While the whole experience is emotional, she said, there's one part that is especially difficult to watch.
In the scene, the actor portraying White comforts a passenger, Cindy, who is hysterically crying. They pray together and White manages to calm her down.
“There was a part just dealing with one of the passengers, I get emotional even thinking about it now but, Cindy who passed away,” White said. “I’m still in contact with her sister to this day and it’s very emotional.”
After the dress rehearsal, Berg Wilson announced to the whole cast that White was in the audience. The room erupted in applause for her.
“You guys did a great job,” White told them. “I just feel so honored to have watched.”
A cast member interrupted White to tell her that they have the true honor.
White introduced herself to every cast member and shared details about the people they portray. But she spent extra time with the three actors portraying her and her colleagues, telling them she's still a flight attendant to this day.
“Yeah, 33 years I’ve been flying,” she said. “You know I feel very blessed. Everyday I’m reminded of it, not in a morbid way but always just to be grateful.”
White still thinks of those who didn’t survive the crash.
“A lot of good came from it and we always think about those that didn’t make it,” White said. “They’re always in our prayers.”
"United Flight 232" runs at the Dairy Arts Center Feb. 15-March 9.