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Sole survivor of NW Flight 255 breaks silence on 25th anniversary of crash

Cecelia Cichan shows a tattoo of an airplane she has on her wrist. She speaks about being the sole survivor of the crash of NW flight 255 out of Detroit in a documentary. WDIV aired clips of that documentary.
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At 4 years old, she was the sole survivor of one of the worst aviation disasters in U.S. history.

On August 16, 1987, one hundred and fifty-six people were killed when Northwest Flight 255 out of Detroit Metro Airport did not put out its wing flaps and slats, which resulted in dangerously low altitude on takeoff.

The plane clipped a light pole, then a building, and crashed to the ground at about 8:46 p.m. killing all of the crew and passengers except for 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan from Tempe, Arizona.

Cichan's parents and 6-year-old brother were killed in the crash. She suffered from severe burns and broken bones. A New York Times article published about Cichan shortly after the crash is titled Crash Survivor's Psychic Pain May Be the Hardest to Heal.

Under sedation, she drifts in and out of consciousness, asking if she is in the middle of a dream and wondering where her mother is. So far, the team of doctors, social workers and psychologists has put off the first painful step they must take as they begin to help Cecilia understand what happened: telling her that her parents and 6-year-old brother died in the crash that also killed 154 others.

After she recovered, Cichan was raised by her aunt and uncle in Alabama. She's now married and she graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in psychology.

Cichan has never spoken publicly about the crash and the death of her family, but now, on the 25th anniversary,  she's speaking about her experience in the documentary film Sole Survivor.

The film takes a look at the lives of 14 sole survivors of major airplane crashes.

Here's a trailer of the movie:


WDIV aired clips of Cichan's interviews in the film last Sunday night.

Filmmaker Ky Dickens told WDIV that sole survivors get an intense amount of media attention that can lead to isolation:

"You don't feel a part of even your community at large because you're often celebrated in this very confusing way that you don't understand, and in the case of the other sole survivors none of them have even talked to each other until this film, so they were even apart from all the other sole survivors, and there was this feeling of deep loneliness," said Dickens.

Dickens said Cichan still has memories of the day of the crash, and in the documentary clips shown on WDIV, Cichan said she thinks about the accident everyday.

"It's kind of hard not to think about it when I look in the mirror. I have visual scars," said Cichan.

She still has scars from the burns, and she carries a tattoo on her wrist of an airplane.

Cichan said speaking in the documentary film was important to her because it was more about the community of sole survivors and less about her.

"I feel like this doesn't count as me going to the media and talking to them, because that would be very individual and about me... this Sole Survivor project is more about a group and that's why I'm willing to get involved and be part of something bigger," said Cichan.

Sole Survivor producers are accepting donations to support the production and distribution of their film on their website. They say they expect the film to be completed in September. No release date has been set yet.

Tonight, at the former crash site near Metro Detroit Airport, families of the victims of NW flight 255 will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy (Cichan is not expected to be there).

Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek will be there and bring us more.

To learn more about what caused the crash, you can watch this segment produced by National Geographic. It shows how distractions from approaching storms, and flawed warning systems led the pilots to skip their takeoff checklist. The checklist would have prompted them to check their flaps and slats prior to takeoff.


Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.