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On a wing and a prayer
Dorothy Kelly was a purser on the PanAm flight which was involved in the tragic accident with the KLM 747 thirty years ago.

Dorothy Kelly at the Mencey
Dorothy Kelly at the Mencey

09.04.2007 -

We caught up with her at the inauguration of the monument to the 583 people who died as a result of the crash and were privileged to hear her extraordinary story first hand.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, the then Dorothy Dawson showed a flair for languages so she was sent to University in Geneva, Switzerland to study.  A very cosmopolitan city with students from all over the world.  She obtained a combined degree that gave her a teaching post and a persistent hankering to travel to visit some of the friends she had met.  A visit to the World Trade Fair in New York in the early sixties only increased the yearning, so after two years of teaching school, she resigned and accepted a job with PanAm as an air hostess.

Shed targeted PanAm and TWA as possible employers and been accepted by both, choosing PanAm because all the flights were international and it was a very prestigious airline at that time.  It was 1966 and she loved her new life.  I had an education travelling that most people never get the chance to get.  So many wait until theyve retired to travel or until their families are grown and take a week or two weeks every year and go someplace and I spent every day going around the world somewhere and it was my choice where I wanted to go.  The job was a lot more glamorous then.  There were more perks and a lot more stopovers which were longer.  Based in New York she spent some time on PanAms 10-15 day trips around the world in one direction, then switched to San Francisco and did the trips in the reverse order.  Along the way there were two and three day stopovers in Tahita or the Fiji Islands, all expenses paid and on salary.

We had wonderful uniforms and in those days we wore white gloves and hats and we had to wear an undergarment called a girdle.  A special grooming supervisor was in charge of making sure the young women had their hair at the right length, make-up correct and would pat them to make sure they were wearing the girdle.  Dorothy laughs confirming, its a lot more relaxed now, and a lot more comfortable.

By the day of the crash, eleven years later, she had risen to purser, a chief flight attendant.  On the 747s there were two because they was so much work it was too much for one person.  The front and more senior purser handled the announcements and the other worked the back of the flight.  Despite being the junior purser on the flight, Dorothy was working the front of the plane because her colleague was French, very self conscious of her accented English and asked Dorothy to take over the announcements and the front of the plane.  She didnt survive and I did.

The chartered flight started in California, stopped in Chicago to pick up more passengers and then came to New York to change crews and pick up the final passengers.  Dorothy and her colleagues took over there.  The plane was scheduled to land at Gran Canaria but because of a bomb at the airport it was diverted with many others to Los Rodeos in northern Tenerife.  We had to wait till the fog lifted and everyone refuelled.  I was in the front of the airplane standing by a door and all of a sudden things were not right and things were flying around the airplane.  I wasnt in a position where I could see out of the plane.  We were taxiing and in those days there were no regulations that we had to be strapped into our seats as soon as the aircraft moved.  I still had some duties and someone had just handed me a cup of coffee.  Everything just changed in a moment.  The thought uppermost in her mind was that it was a bomb.

The floor dropped away and she ended up unconscious in the cargo section of the aircraft.  She woke up in the dark, completely disorientated and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.  Far above her a tiny amount of light was coming through and she climbed up to it, coming out on the area of the nose of the plane where the upper deck is, where the bump is at the front.

The KLM airplane had peeled off the top of the PanAm plane, just like peeling off the top of a sardine can, the top had rolled right off.  Everyone in the section had gone.  There were two people up on the nose with her and she asked them how they had got out, where they had come from but they didnt know.  She looked around everywhere to locate an exit from the plane to at least to call to people so that they could climb out but she couldnt find one. 

There was an engine still running and because of the training shed received as an air hostess and as a private pilot, she knew it was not safe to stay there.  There was a lot of fuel, fire, small explosions and she tried to persuade the passengers to jump but they wouldnt, so she pushed them and jumped herself.  It was probably then that she injured her arm.  It was brush ground almost up to knee height because the pilot had tried to steer off the tarmac to avoid the collision.  People were milling around the aircraft.  There were no doors that could be opened, they had become twisted in the impact, and so normal emergency procedures could not be followed.  Some people were climbing out of a hole near the left wing.

She concentrated on getting people as far away from the aircraft as she could.  The engine continued to run.  There was blood running into her eyes from a head injury and seeing some colleagues she ran over and asked them to check out her wound, returning to her rescue task when they confirmed that it appeared to be superficial.  I did what I could.  Most of the people were senior citizens going on a cruise who injured themselves jumping off the wing and couldnt get away from the plane.  Running back and forth she noticed something white under the front of the plane.  It turned out to be the Captain, he was dazed, really stunned.  She had hooked her arms under his and was running backwards with him dragging him when the engine finally blew up.  They ducked through the debris and she left him in safety.  At that point the front part of the airplane where we had just been under started to move, there was a groaning and moaning and all of a sudden it just sort of settled over on its side, just like a great beached whale that had given up the will to live because it couldnt get back to the water and had put its head over and died.

Volunteers turned up to collect people and drove in as close as they could get and Robert Bragg the co-pilot was also helping to get people away from the plane despite a broken ankle.  Then at one point people just stopped coming out.  I have no idea to this day what it was like inside the plane, obviously the damage was so great that not everybody could get to that opening over the wing.  My worst memory was watching the people banging on the windows and listening to them screaming and banging on the windows and we couldnt get up to that part of the airplane to get them out.  With a pained and faraway look in her eye she admitted, I had nightmares for many years.  For the longest time I couldnt look at a fireplace or a fire, I just saw people in it.

After making a final check of the area with Robert Bragg, she got in one of the last cars to leave the scene and was rushed to hospital.  She was shown to a room where the other members of the crew were but having a little medical knowledge as well as Spanish and English she refused to stay there and volunteered to help the medical team.  She busied herself labelling people with sticky tape, names allergies etc and then was asked to help with the burn victims removing burnt clothing and skin from the injured to prevent infection.  It was really gruesome but the adrenalin was really going and I guess thats how people get through war and similar things.  You dont stop to think about how this is affecting you, theres a job there and you just have to do it.  It was OK peeling it down until I got to the fingernails and I got stuck.  A doctor came over and he said, just pull it.  When she again started to label people and found she couldnt use the scissors that was when she realised she had injured her arm in fact it was broken.

Several days in hospital were followed by a few days in the Mencey where staff whizzed her around the underbelly of the hotel and in and out of staff corridors and service lifts to avoid the international press.

After flying home, she didnt fly for a year and a half under doctors orders, but as a logical person she was aware that flying is one of the safest methods of transport so she had no qualms about taking to the air again, although she admits being alert to every unusual smell or squeak the craft made and sensitive to the tiniest of turbulence movements which wouldnt have bothered her before.  After the accident PamAm trained a group of volunteers in post traumatic stress syndrome which sadly was to come in useful later.

By 1988, now divorced, Dorothy was living in London in a commuter house full of airline crew.  One day one of her roommates asked her if she would switch flights but shed managed to get a two day layover in New York and hadnt been able to spend Christmas with her family in years so she declined.  The girl did eventually manage to trade with someone else.  The flight was PanAm 103 which was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie killing 270 people.  Dorothy was taken off flight status and set to helping the relatives and flight attendants.

In 1990, PanAm offered some members of staff, Dorothy included, the chance for a long lay off, with a cash bonus or a switch to Miami.  She accepted the cash and started a course in decorative and fine arts at Sotherbys Auction House in London.  When the cash dried up after three or four months she delved into her own savings to finish the course expecting PanAm to survive and allow her to restart her career.  PanAm went bankrupt in 1991 and was taken over by United airlines who seemed to make a very arbitrary choice of who was to stay on and who was to leave.  In the group of people that were hired, there were good and bad shall we say, and in the group of people that were not hired, there were also good and bad but there were some of the best flight attendants that PanAm had, absolutely superb flight attendants.

When she got back to the States it was very difficult to find employment.  It was the beginning of a tough time for a woman who had been decorated several times for her bravery in 1977, including the American Transportation Departments first every decoration.  She spoke in front of a lot of famous people, but at the end was left without a roof over her head.  Other people were very generous, other flight attendants that I knew offering me their place when they were away, but there were just some nights when I couldnt find a place to stay.  So I would just go out to the airport because I knew it was open 24 hours.  I tried to live on five dollars a day got a resume together and just tried to find employment.  She skims over the period with, actually it was a year or two of really hard struggling.

She was finally hired by Sotherbys part time and then full time as a floater, going to every department that needed help.  She was eventually hired by the contemporary art department.  Those were the days when there was a lot of internal intrigue between departments and between Christies and Sotherbys.  There was a lot more than art to it and you met a lot of famous people and you got to see and touch some beautiful stuff, you got to wear the jewellery, try it on  One of the most famous sales she worked on was the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate sale, we worked non-stop for weeks, great fun and a great experience.

After a successful five year lawsuit, those who were not originally given contracts by United Airlines, Dorothy included, were rehired and she took to the air again, once more based in London. During this period her courage and fatalistic approach was once more to the fore when aircrew backed out of flying after the terrorist attacks in America on 9/11 and flights had to be cancelled for lack of crew.  She was in the office picking something up and sent home in a taxi to get her uniform and passport to substitute someone who was refusing to fly.

She finally returned to America in October last year to continue to working with United out of Washington DC.  Im loving it she declared, and I am having too much fun ever to think of retiring.  The accident marked her for life.  Ive learned that our emergency training is very good and very necessary.  I think Ive learned to be more patient in many ways.  I seem to be more resilient and able to recover more quickly if something bad happens.  Seeing something so horrible I find that anything bad that happens to me is nothing compared with the big picture.  Whatever life brings it brings, all you can do is take precautions.

Flying waitress, trolley dolly, in a lifetime dedicated to her profession Dorothy has heard all the demeaning epithets going, but she more than anyone else is aware of the real job of an air hostess.  Its not about what youre going to get fed or how quickly you can get a glass of champagne, their main task is to get you on and off the plane and to your destination as safely as possible, something that is never emphasised enough and something maybe to remember next time you take a flight.


By Sheila Collis

Gallery: On a wing and a prayer
Dorothy Kelly at the Mencey 
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