The column of black smoke rose from the Iowa cornfield.
A DC-10 airplane carrying 296 people had crashed near Sioux City. All that remained was a twisted and burning hulk, which had cut a swath of black into the midsummer crops surrounding the city’s airport.
Passengers, some still strapped into their seats, had been thrown from the plane. Many were dead, but some were alive amid the burning fuel and wreckage.
Gregory Clapper rushed to the side of an injured man named Brad, who was hurt but conscious. Together, they prayed.
A young chaplain at the time, Clapper was one of the first people to arrive at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 232. The experiences he gained praying with the wounded, counseling the first-responders and helping the community heal from the tragedy would shape his career for the next 25 years.
This weekend, the Center Grove area resident is back in Sioux City to help lead anniversary ceremonies and remember the victims and miracles stemming from
“The ripples of Sioux City continue to be felt, of course in a negative way because of the loss and the deaths, but also in some positive ways,” he said.
The flight left Denver on July 19, 1989, bound for Chicago. About midway through the trip, the tail engine exploded, cutting hydraulic lines and preventing the pilots from controlling the plane.
The pilots were able to land the plane; but without landing gear and the ability to slow down, the aircraft was destroyed.
‘I saw a line of smoke’
Clapper’s experience as a chaplain at the Flight 232 crash influenced his decision to stay in the Air National Guard. He served for 24 years, eventually reaching the rank of colonel. He served five tours of duty overseas, and his home office is decorated with photos, plaques and honors stemming from his service.
But in 1989, he could not have imagined the arch his career would take. He had only joined the Air National Guard as a chaplain in April, months before the plane crash. In addition, he was teaching religion at Westmar College in Le Mars, Iowa.
On the night of the crash, he and his family were driving into Sioux City to see the movie “Peter Pan.” They reached the mall, and as they stepped out of the car, Clapper noticed a large airplane flying overhead.
“I knew that typically Sioux City airport doesn’t handle DC-10s. Just a few seconds later, I saw a line of smoke rising from the airport,” he said.
Ushering his family back into the car, Clapper started driving toward the airport. Radio reports confirmed his fears — a plane had crashed.
Being a chaplain, he wanted to see what assistance he could lend at the tragedy. Emergency officials had blocked off the freeway exits at the airport, part of the disaster response plan. Even with his military ID, Clapper was not allowed to pass.
“So I got out of the car and decided to run in,” he said. “My wife took the kids back to the theater; that was the only thing she could think to do.”
Reaching a checkpoint, he again showed his military ID and asked how he could help.
Rescue workers and emergency responders were already on scene.
‘Tangled mess of wreckage’
Clapper was pointed toward the wreckage, where some victims were still trapped inside the cockpit.
“The cockpit was the last part of the plane to be discovered because it looked like a tangled mess of wreckage. You’d never believe that there was anyone in there,” he said.
The five people inside were alive, waiting to be freed from the remains of the plane.
Clapper remembers talking to one of the men, whose head was visible through the wreckage. He touched the man’s head, encouraging him to keep breathing in God’s spirit.
Emergency responders were able to treat the injured passengers and get the wreckage cleared away in 45 minutes, a feat believed to have contributed to saving the 184 people.
The crash killed 112 people, but that number could have been much higher without the excellent organization and effort at the crash site, Clapper said.
With the injured on their way to hospitals, Clapper’s focus shifted to the men and women who had responded to the tragedy. The Air Force had trained Clapper to do three things after a tragedy — aid the injured, honor the dead and care for the caregivers.
“That was the main focus of my ministry the next couple of weeks, helping people process what they had been through and help them not get stuck there, to move on,” he said.
That first night, Clapper spent time talking to those at the scene of the crash. The tragedy dredged up past incidents they had been involved with.
Firefighters talked about blazes they had put out where people had died. Police officers were brought back to their service in the Vietnam War, the smell of burned flesh and fuel.
One man talked to Clapper about an infant who had died in his family recently.
“At first I wondered why he was talking about this in the middle of a plane crash,” Clapper said. “But I learned that is common. When people experience one tragedy, it opens the door to all of the other tragedies in their lives.”
In small groups, police officers, firefighters and other emergency officials gathered to share what they experienced. At worship services, the community gathered to mourn together.
‘The resources of our faith’
Clapper published a book expounding on his experience, “When the World Breaks Your Heart: Spiritual Ways of Living with Tragedy.” He also was featured in a nonspeaking role in the made-for-TV movie about the disaster, “Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232,” starring Charlton Heston.
The weeks he spent working after the Sioux City tragedy would provide a foundation for the work Clapper would do later in his career. He volunteered for five deployments overseas during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Serving in hospitals and at Air Force bases in Germany and Turkey, he worked with wounded soldiers in the psychiatric ward. One of the issues he encouraged was spiritual wellness.
Clapper would quiz the soldiers about what they wanted to be free from and then what they wanted to be free for.
“Dealing with that tragedy in Sioux City helped me realize there really are two sides,” he said. “In that group, I often saw that people understood we didn’t have to be trapped by the past. We have to own it, but we don’t have to dwell on it.”
Clapper will lead the memorial service recognizing the 25th anniversary of the crash today. In his sermon, he plans to talk about faith in light of a tragedy such as the United 232 crash.
One of his main points comes from the book of Psalms in the Bible. A majority of those verses are expressions of lament or sadness.
“What that tells us is that instead of tragedy and brokenheartedness turning us away from our faith, we should look for the resources of our faith to help us live with it,” Clapper said.
In Sioux City, Clapper will be reunited with the people who touched his life and whom he helped the night of the tragedy and afterward. He’s looking forward to visiting with Susan White, who was a flight attendant on United Flight 232. Clapper later officiated her wedding.
A fellow Air National Guard member, Teresa Dickmann, will be at the memorial service. Dickmann was part of the emergency response at the crash site, and she later asked Clapper to walk her down the aisle at her second wedding.
“It will be cathartic. I was out there for the one-year anniversary and the 10-year reunion, and when they dedicated the memorial statue,” he said. “They’re saying that this will be the last one, and I think that’s probably good. There will be a sense of closure.”