When the plane crashed, Thelma and Philip Vogel remained true to character.
They did not panic. They did not scream. They did not push past other passengers frantically, blindly, in an attempt to escape the burning, badly smoking plane.
No, the Vogels-married forty-six years, parents of two grown sons, long active in charity work in the city-would die as they had lived.
Selflessly, graciously, quietly.
“I have talked to two people who were sitting next to my parents on the plane that day,” says David Vogel. who is forty-three. “They called me after the crash. I asked them to tell me exactly what happened. I said we really wanted to know.”
And what they found out, both sons say with a wry, knowing smile and a small shake of the head, did not surprise them.
Their parents had been sitting across the aisle from each other-in 15C and 15D. As the plane prepared to take off, their mother talked with a woman from Quitman, Texas. Their father read Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, occasionally pulling a small calculator from his shirt pocket and jabbing some numbers into it, as though determined to prove the New York billionaire’s math wrong. His seatmate, quite correctly, guessed he was an accountant.
“I can just see him sitting there,” says David, who works in the accounting firm his father founded, “with two sharpened pencils slicking up out of his pocket.”
The Vogels were flying to Salt Lake City, then on to Alberta, Canada-to a place so beautiful they reserved it for special occasions. Their honeymoon. Their twenty-fifth anniversary. Now. a long-awaited vacation. “They were very much in love,” says David’s brother Peter, forty-one, his chin jutting out slightly, as though he were trying to steady himself.
But the plane strained on takeoff, never achieving the thrust or height it needed to get into the air. The tail scraped the runway. The right wing dipped, then hit. The plane roared past the end of the runway, bumping and burning along a field, down and up a ravine, finally resting against a fence, broken into three separate pieces. Fire erupted in the back of the plane, sending thick, deadly smoke barreling down the fuselage, full of poison. Passengers scrambled to get out.
“The woman from Quitman told us she got up from her window seat and passed my mother to get to the aisle,” David says. “Halfway down the aisle, she remembered that she had forgotten her purse under the seat so she went back. My mother was just unbuckling herself. And my father, right across the aisle, was just unbuckling himself. The Quitman woman had to pass by them again to get to her purse. And they waited until she had done that. So typical of my father. A gentleman to the end.”
David Vogel’s “Mom and Pop” were the only people who died in the front of the airplane. (The bodies of twelve others were found in the rear, clustered around an exit door that would not open. A National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash states, incredibly, that the door remained closed-despite the desperate efforts of people inside and outside the burning plane-because dozens of soft drink cans had tumbled out of a food storage compartment and piled up in front of the door.)
David and Peter Vogel try to envision it all-the rushing, the fear, the smoke bearing down on their parents. It’s as though they feel they could rescue them, alter fate, if they could only piece it all together.
They wonder, for example, what happened to their mother’s handbag-a handsome, new. brown leather bag made in Italy. “It was a Bodega bag,” says Peter. “My wife remembered.” They don’t know if their mother left it under her seat or took it with her when she and her husband fled to Row 4. where their bodies were found lying together in the aisle.
The Vogels’ sons never got the bag back from Delta, though they got its contents-a wallet, credit cards, plastic bottles of prescription pills, a powder compact with a little mirror. “And a check for the amount of cash Delta found inside the wallet,” Peter Vogel adds. Delta also returned one box of acrid-smelling clothes, some too foul to keep, that were apparently found inside their parents’ luggage,
From the Tarrant County morgue, where the Vogels were finally identified eleven hours after the crash-at 8:15 and 9 p.m., respectively-their children received one charred wedding ring with eight diamonds in it and a pair of metal, clip-on earrings.
The morgue had no clothes to return to the family. No brown shoes with a medium heel. “Hush Puppies.” Peter says. “My mother always wore Hush Puppies.” No brown skirt with a white silk blouse. No brown sports jacket, brown slacks, brown wingtips. No calculator. No sharp pencils.
They had all burned away.
BOTH DELTA AND THE VOGEL FAMILY refer to it as “our crash.”
More than a year after the crash took place, both still live it, still reel from it- but in different ways, at different levels.
Delta has lawsuits to contend with. The Vogels have memories.
Two months ago, Delta accepted full responsibility for the accident-not out of some profound sense of human decency, mind you, but out of a deeper, more pressing need to stem the hemorrhaging on the loss side of their financial statement. On September 26, federal investigators would present their findings on the crash of Delta Flight 1141 to the NTSB. Delta knew what they were going to say: the crew had been chitchatting and forgot to set the flaps correctly.
“By taking the blame early,” says a lawyer representing some of the passengers, “Delta could come off like great guys because they’re willing to admit their mistakes.”
Now only one question was left-“How much were the people worth?”
Unfortunately for Delta, Texas juries don’t just award actual damages in civil cases. They award punitive damages, too, if they decide “gross neglect” factored into what happened. Punitive damages are subjective things that come from the heart. They can be insanely high. They can contribute to verdicts like Pennzoil v. Texaco: of $11.1 billion, $3 billion was punitive.
Delta doesn’t want to be another Texaco, So Delta, in a very savvy move that put all the gross neglect on the three in the cockpit, fired its crew. And though it would not release any of the details of those firings, the termination letters they gave the pilot and copilot are full of wrath. Full of Delta’s fear of the bottom line: financial rape.
Copies of those letters are buried in a file at the Dallas County Courthouse. Someone should tack them up inside every cockpit in America. They should be required reading for every crew that flies. They should be adopted as part of the bylaws of the Air Line Pilots Association, which still insists that the crew did set the flaps, did act professionally, and should therefore be reinstated and allowed to fly again.
Over the Vogels’ dead bodies.
Delta’s letter to Capt. Larry L. Davis, dated July 18, reads, “…The crash of Flight 1141 was the result of errors and omissions by you in the performance of your duties as Captain of the flight. . .Specifically, you failed to insure that the flaps were properly configured in the 15-degree takeoff position and that the leading edge devices were fully extended. You also did not enforce the sterile cockpit rule, did not give a timely takeoff briefing, and did not verbally initiate checklists, all of which violated Company rules and procedures.
“Your errors and omissions and your failure to properly exercise your authority and responsibility as Pilot-in-Command of Flight 1141 have had significant consequences. . .”
Death. Injury. Total destruction of the aircraft.
Not to mention one heck of a liability problem.
PETER VOGEL SPENDS A LOT OF TIME in his parents’ house right now, All the old furniture is there, all the personal mementos are in drawers and closets and shelves. Peter Vogel wakes in the middle of the night sometimes. He sees his parents’ things all around him. At those moments, he is as close to them as he can possibly get.
“It’s a comforting sense 1 get,” he says. “Dealing with grief by being there. Being with their furniture and possessions.”
David Vogel is working in his father’s office at Philip Vogel & Co. PC now. He sits at his father’s desk, talks on his father’s telephone. His father’s old pictures hang on the wall. His father’s personal effects sit in brown boxes on the floor. Several times a day, David Vogel looks out the window and sees things from his father’s perspective.
He sees pilots who acted unprofessionally, recklessly. He sees airline officials concerned only about the bottom line. He sees his father holding his mother’s hand, headed into the smoke trying to overcome them all.
When the plane crashed, Thelma and Philip Vogel remained true to character.