Every time Karl Sup of Mesa is in Detroit for business, he stops by the black granite memorial near Interstate 94 and Middle Belt Road in Romulus, Mich. He’s there to remember a friend whose name is etched alongside with 155 others.
His friend was Mike Sullivan of Chandler, a guy Sup described as someone who always carried a smile, always cared to listen, a good person, a good friend, a good father and a great volleyball player whose nickname was “Captain Crunch.”
“Mike was just a great guy,” said Sup, 48, who works as a computer software engineer for JDA Software in Scottsdale. “He was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”
On Aug. 16, 1987, Sullivan, 27, of Chandler was among 156 people — 154 on Northwest Flight 255 and two motorists on the ground — who all died in the second-worst airplane disaster in U.S. history. The sole survivor of the crash: 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan (now Cecelia Crocker) formerly of Tempe.
Twenty-five years later, neighbors of the victims still vividly remember their friends who once lived a few doors away and knocked on their door to welcome them to the neighborhood or share a glass of wine.
Outside of Phoenix City Hall, there is a memorial containing the names of those who died on Northwest Flight 255. Of the 148 passengers and six crew members on the plane who died in the fiery crash, 110 were from Arizona and 32 of them are listed as being from the East Valley.
Sullivan was an electrical engineer for the Intel plant in Chandler and working on a project with the Ford Motor Co. in Michigan involving the design of computer chips for digital dashboards. He was the father of a 5-year-old son, Ryan, at the time of his death.
Seconds after taking off from Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, the left wing of the plane clipped an Avis car rental business sign and was torn from the aircraft, sending the plane smashing to the ground and exploding into dozens of pieces as it skidded through an overpass. The plane was on its way to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, the cause of the crash was the flight crew’s failure to use the taxi checklist to ensure the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff. Contributing to the accident was the absence of electrical power to the airplane takeoff warning system which thus did not warn the flight crew that the airplane was not configured properly for takeoff. The reason for the absence of electrical power could not be determined, according to the NTSB.
Among other victims were all five members of the William Best family of Mesa including the youngest — 4-month-old Katelyn Best; all four members of the Ronald Geiger family of Gilbert; and all four members of the Donald Byelich family of Chandler.
About 200 family and friends from around the United States are expected to converge at the memorial in Romulus on Thursday to remember loved ones lost on that tragic day, possibly more than the amount of people who turned out for the 20th anniversary of the crash.
On Thursday, at Sisk Park in the Sun Lakes community in Chandler near South Alma School and Riggs roads, Rosemarie Geiger Testa, the mother of Ron Geiger, 36, who was on the flight with his family, will hold a memorial picnic for family members and Geiger’s friends. Testa’s daughter-in-law, Valerie Geiger, 36, and her two granddaughters, Lisa, 7, and Lauren Geiger, 5, also died in the crash.
“With God’s help and the faith my family have and especially with the love and support of friends and family, we have all come through that tragedy stronger and more compassionate human begins,” Rosemarie Geiger Testa said on www.flight255memorial.com/guestbook, which contains nearly 1,000 comments from people throughout the world.
Many Valley residents knew someone or know of someone who knew a person on that flight — engineers who worked at General Motors Proving Grounds in Mesa; parishioners of St. Timothy’s Catholic Community church in Mesa; 18-year-old Benjamin Turner, the son of Pastor Dan Turner of St. Matthew’s Church in Mesa; and Nick Vanos, second-string center for the Phoenix Suns, to name a few.
Sup said he and his volleyball teammates often think of Mike Sullivan.
Sup met Sullivan playing sand volleyball at Minder Binder’s near University and McClintock drives in Tempe in the early 1980s. Sup said he knows that Mike is smiling down on them as his friends, now in their 40s, beat teams consisting of players about half their age.
“He was supposed to play volleyball with us that following Monday, and we wondered why he didn’t show up,” Sup added. “Mike definitely had more to do in his life, but it wasn’t to be.”
The sole survivor of the crash who now is 29, has been moving on with her life, shielded from the spotlight while preferring privacy.
Miraculously, Cecelia Cichan, then 4, survived the crash after her badly burned body was discovered in the wreckage by a paramedic who heard her moan and saw her arm twitch as she was lodged between luggage and a seat. She also had a fractured skull, a broken collarbone and other broken bones.
Earlier this week, Cecelia made national news when it was announced that she had broken her long-standing silence about not speaking to media of the tragedy. In June 2011, she was interviewed for a documentary “Sole Survivor” about people who are the only survivors of plane crashes, a series scheduled to be released sometime this year.
Cecelia’s father, Michael Cichan, a botany professor at Arizona State University, her mother Paula and brother, David, 6, were killed in the crash.
Cecelia’s grandfather identified her by her front chipped tooth and by the purple fingernail polish her grandmother had applied on her for the trip. Cecelia’s aunt and uncle later raised her in Birmingham, Ala. and shielded her from the spotlight.
Although Cecelia has never attended one of the memorial services involving the plane crash, she often reaches out to family members of the crash victims who died.
On the documentary, Cecelia said she agreed to grant the interview for the program because it involves a group of people and doesn’t focus on just one person.
“I think about the accident every day,” said Crocker, who now is married and has a psychology degree. “It’s kind of hard not to think about it. When I look in the mirror, I have visual scars.”
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