KENNER, La. -- It was 1982.
“It was like a bomb had landed in the middle of our city,” said Causeway Police Chief Nick Congemi.
The tragic explosion and fire from the crash of Pan-Am Flight 759 took the lives of 154 people seconds after takeoff from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
“You couldn’t believe what you were seeing, and I just said, ‘Oh my God,’” said David H. Baldwin, a retired air traffic controller.
Baldwin is last person to talk to the pilots of Flight 759 before it crashed to the ground.
“I issued him his clearance. The weather was deteriorating. There were thunderstorms,” Baldwin said.
Just moments before the crash, Baldwin was the air traffic controller on the radio with the pilots, and as a thunderous rainstorm pounded down, they discussed the threatening weather.
“He asked the control tower, what's your current winds? And we issued to him, the very worst of it is passing directly overhead right now, wind sheer all quadrants.”
He said the decision to take off or not was up to the pilot.
“And the aircraft, the pilot elected to go. And that is the pilot's prerogative.”
Baldwin said he was talking to the Houston center meteorologist as the airliner made what he describes as a flat take off.
“I'm watching him and I'm going, in my mind I'm going, is this guy going to make it?” Baldwin said. “And then, bam! There's the fireball. There's the smoke. I'm like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God!’”
On the ground it was devastation. The crash scene stretched three blocks long and two blocks wide.
Houses were obliterated. Eight people in the neighborhood were killed.
And yet seconds after seeing the crash from the air traffic control tower, Baldwin said no one could believe or wanted to believe what they just saw.
One of his colleagues even tried to radio the pilots.
“Your brain did not want to process the fact that this aircraft had just crashed in the thunderstorm,” he said. “Even though it's obvious that it has.”
In those days the media were not cordoned off, away from the scene. We reported live from the midst of the charred, smoking rubble.
As a reporter on the scene back then, I remember having trouble coming to terms with all the horror that surrounded us. And 30 years after the crash, former Kenner Fire Department Chief Mike Zito said he had the same difficulty as a young firefighter responding to the tragedy.
“It was terrible. We saw families together, still in seats.”
And in the air traffic control tower, Baldwin said there was a stunned, chilling silence as the magnitude of the crash hit everyone like a body blow they could never forget.
“I just saw 154 people get killed. I think that moment, I carried my entire FAA career,” he said. “I think that came into play about everything I ever did.”
And he said it left him with all kinds of questions.
“I found myself questioning everything about everything that we did,” he said. “Did we do everything proper? Absolutely we did.”
The federal investigation revealed that a dangerous microburst of wind shear had slammed Flight 759 to the ground as the plane was just lifting off from the runway.
“Wind shear in this scenario was a column of air, a column of air descending out of a thunderstorm and going in every direction,” he said.
The crash led to more research and a better understanding of the danger of wind shear, and it led to the installation of wind shear detection devices at airports across the country that didn't already have them.
“It's hard to think of anything good that came out of that. But countless lives have been saved worldwide because of that Pan-Am crash,” he said.
Baldwin, who just retired last month, said pilots are not be allowed to take off in similar weather conditions today.
Baldwin said he has taken action at the last second and saved lives in a number of other situations, including a near collision between two planes on the runway.
He said that gives him personal solace.