NEW ORLEANS -- It happened in a matter of seconds.
Pan Am Flight 759 had just begun lifting off from New Orleans International Airport when intense wind shear slammed the 727 back to Earth in a violent rain storm.
“I remember driving to the scene and we couldn't see past the hood of the vehicle -- I mean, literally,” said former Kenner Fire Chief Mike Zito.
Zito was a young firefighter who was among the first to respond to the crash scene, just four blocks off the runway.
“There is no horror movie that I’ve ever seen or incident that I’ve ever seen that can come close,” he said.
Zito and the other first responders were searching for survivors, but finding only death.
“It was terrible. We saw families together, still in seats,” Zito said.
The crash took the lives of 137 people on the plane and eight people in Kenner’s Roosevelt subdivision.
“I don't think that any city anywhere is prepared for something like this,” said Kenner Police Chief Steve Caraway.
Caraway and Causeway Police Chief Nick Congemi were young policemen here at the time.
Congemi said it was like walking through hell.
“And within a short period of time there were no bodies to speak of,” Congemi said. “The few, they had had been transported. We were mostly dealing with body parts.”
Congemi also worked full-time for Pan Am and knew the flight crew who died. The victims on the ground were his neighbors. He lived just two blocks away.
“So it was a very emotional, an intimate thing for us,” Congemi said.
The scene was so overwhelming the first responders sometimes had to take a break to compose themselves.
At one point, Zito said, one of his colleagues commented on all the oil in the road.
“And I said, that's not oil, because oil makes a sheen and it floats and separates,” Zito said. “It was blood, washing down the street.”
So when 16-month-old Melissa Trahan was found alive under a baby mattress with minor burns on her hands and feet, it ignited a sense of jubilation.
“It lifted us,” Zito said. “It gave us that extra strength to go into the night.”
When Zito spoke at the 20th anniversary of the crash at a memorial listing all of the victims in Kenner, he said he tried to impress on their loved ones that first responders attended to the victims with sensitivity.
“They were never alone,” Zito said. “They were never by themselves. We were there. And we did it. We treated them all with dignity, honor and dignity."
History teacher Royd Anderson has made a documentary on the crash because he's concerned that this piece of local history could be lost.
He said it's not in history books, and a lot of young people know enough about it.
“The wind shear detector on the runway wasn't working. It was broken. So that was a major contributor,” Anderson said.
Anderson said working wind shear detectors are now mandatory in airports and in airliners.
As you might expect, he says the families of victims are still shattered by their loss.
“There were people from 26 different countries who were on that plane,” Anderson said.
Zito says the biggest message he takes from the crash is simple.
“Life is fragile. Make the most of it while you have it.”
A memorial service will be held Monday at 3 p.m. at the memorial to the victims of the crash at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Kenner.
For more on filmmaker Royd Anderson's documentary visit Facebook.com/PanAmFlight759. It will be screened Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the East Bank Regional Library, 4747 W. Napoleon, Metairie.