Pan Am crash's 'Miracle Baby' made best of second chance

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wwltv.com

Posted on July 5, 2012 at 10:35 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 6 at 2:28 PM

Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

NEW ORLEANS -- It happened the afternoon of July 9, 1982, as a torrential storm pounded down in Kenner.

Pan Am Flight 759 had just taken off from New Orleans International Airport when a powerful burst of wind shear slammed the 727, full of flammable fuel, back to Earth and into a Kenner neighborhood.

“It was like a bomb had landed in the middle of our city and killed 154 people,” said Causeway Police Chief Nick Congemi.

Eight of those victims were people on the ground in Kenner.

Congemi was a Kenner policeman and a Pan Am employee who knew members of the flight crew.

He will never forget the scene.

“I think it was like walking through hell. You're walking through this fire and mayhem,” he said.

Fire was everywhere. Homes were pushed off slabs - six of them destroyed, five damaged. Rubble and bodies, everywhere.

“We had to go through the gruesome chore of gathering up all of the body parts,” Congemi said.

Arnold Merritt was a lead ramp agent for Pan Am who ran a makeshift morgue at the airport. He said 30 years after the crash, he’s still feeling the effects.

“We had whole families, you know, husband wife, kids. I had the one lady, bless her heart, was expecting a baby,” Merritt said.

Kenner policeman Gerald Hibbs said he remembered thinking there was no way anyone could have survived this.

And then, several hours into the recovery, he thought he saw something move near a baby mattress.

“I went ahead and moved the mattress, pulled the carpet, and there was the little baby,” Hibbs said in a 2002 interview.

In that horrifying field of death, Hibbs found 16-month-old Melissa Trahan alive.

“When I turned her over she started crying,” Hibbs said. “Actually, I started crying myself.”

Former Kenner Fire Chief Mike Zito said people shouted, “They found someone alive! A baby, alive!”

“We all stopped and stood up, and within these four blocks you just heard cheering and yelling and screaming,” Zito said in 2002.

“It was a miracle. It was truly a miracle,” said Kenner Police Chief Steve Caraway.

We first met with "Missy" - Melissa Trahan - 10 years ago on the 20th anniversary of the crash when she was a college student.

“And now I'm 31 with a 2-year-old and, oh, she wears me out,” Missy said, laughing. “But wears me out in a good way.

“I've been given something that nobody else has. I was given a second chance.”

But the crash took her 4-year-old sister and her mom, who people tell her was selfless and had a sweet spirit.

“Her spirit lives inside of me, and so does my sister's,” Trahan said.

Today Missy is a bright, happily married mom with a bachelor's degree, an MBA and an uplifting place in a piece of Kenner history.

When she meets people who remember the crash, or who lost friends or loved ones, she says it's often emotional.

“You either get smiles, you get tears of joy,” she said. “I get a lot of hugs. I get hugged a lot.”

But she says those moments are bittersweet.

“I'm hurt because they’re hurting, because I can’t take their pain away,” she said. “I can't bring their family members back. I can’t bring my mom back. I can’t bring my sister back.”

The man who rescued her - Gerald Hibbs - has died since our interview 10 years ago.

Missy said she has a close, special relationship with her dad, who was at work when the crash took place, and also with her grandparents.

“It may have been 30 years ago, but to my family and so many other families, it affects us every day because it affects, it affected who we are, who we became.”

The crash left some with psychological scars.

“You know it's best to forget, but it just preys on your mind, you know,” Merritt said. “Just hope it never happens again.”

But this little girl who grew into this charming, sensitive young woman has become a symbol of one bright spot in that horrific tragedy.

“And when you're given something as wonderful as a second chance at life, want to be able to pass that on,” Missy said.

So when the ultrasound showed she was going to have a daughter herself, she said she cried.

“And I looked at my grandma and I said we have another Melanie. She's named after my mom and my mother in law, Melanie Kate.”

Luckily, Missy only suffered burns to her hands and feet and has no scars from her injuries.

Sunday at 10 p.m., we will take a closer look at the response to the Pan Am crash, how it led to improvements in air safety and how the victims are being remembered.

A service remembering the victims of flight 759 will be held Monday at 3:00 p.m., just about an hour before the plane crashed 30 years ago.

It will be at the site of a memorial to the victims, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, in Kenner's Rivertown.

 

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