Sunday evening, August 16, 1987, it was a stifling, humid 90 degrees outside. Happily, it was cooler in my basement office, where I sat contemplating a third master's degree, in international politics, to augment the two I already had in criminal justice fields. Or should I go for a PhD in sociology instead? I was deep in thought, mapping out all the pros and cons, when my police scanner chirped.
"Code fifty!" Code fifty!"
It was 8:46 p.m., and the radio call was from the Wayne County Sheriff's Department—the department I had retired from as a detective sergeant.
My first thought was, Damn it's gotta be a big one.
"Car Twenty-four, Car Seventeen, Car Thirty-four—Middlebelt and Wick!"
"Car Twenty-four, en route."
"Car Fifty-one, Car Fifty-three, Car Thirty-one—Middlebelt and Wick!"
As one scout car after another responded I knew what had happened: a big airplane had just crashed outside Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. They needed officers, so I grabbed my car keys, jumped in my black '73 Ford, and stuck my emergency blue light on my dash.
Twenty minutes later, I had made it from suburban Grosse Ile to Middlebelt Road by the airport, where I saw an ocean of flashing blue lights ahead. I had worked the airport and Sheriff's Road Patrol for years, so as I approached the scout cars blocking the road the officers just waved me through. I drove a short distance and parked.
The night sky was lit up with flames. Luckily, there was no wind, but a strong smell of fuel and burning materials filled the air. A large twin-engine Northwest Airlines plane, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 with 6 crew members and 149 passengers, en route to Phoenix, had stalled shortly after takeoff. We would learn later that the engines had been at full throttle but the wing flaps and slats had not been properly set. At the moment of impact, it was loaded with forty tons of jet fuel and moving at 195 miles per hour. As it came down the left wing clipped the Avis car rental building on the northeast corner of the airport. The fuel ignited as the plane rolled and slammed into Middlebelt Road, then hurtled northward a half mile and crashed into the railroad and Interstate 94 overpasses, where most of the wreckage came to rest.
There were officers everywhere and six people had already been arrested for looting bodies, but the crash scene appeared secure. So there was nothing more anyone could do other than walk around and perhaps find the flight recorder or—against all odds—a survivor.
The cockpit of the aircraft had broken off in the initial impact. I climbed inside with one of my former partners, Bob Crain. The top of the cockpit was sheared off, and there was nothing left of the pilots other than a piece of skull about the size of a big sand dollar, on the floor by Captain John Maus's seat. Picking it up, I looked where the brain had been, and said, "I wonder if it was pilot error."
"Who knows?" Bob replied, shaking his head. "But take a look below."
In the cargo hold, a beautiful blonde stewardess in a white blouse and beige skirt lay faceup. She looked uninjured and asleep. Her high heels were off, and there was a deep gouge in the heal of her right foot, but no blood. It meant that her heart had stopped beating before she got the wound. We stepped away and headed north on Middlebelt.
There was wreckage everywhere, and a smell of burnt flesh. The road was strewn with flames and bodies. Most of the bodies were strapped into seats, still smoldering in smoke and fire. None of them had just a single mortal injury. They all had suffered such massive blows that they appeared inhuman. Somehow, that made it easier to take, as if I weren't looking at real people. There were men, woman, kids, infants. The crash killed everyone, it appeared, including two motorists on Middlebelt Road. Miraculously, firemen discovered 4-year-old, Cecelia Crocker, severely burnt but alive. She had lost her mother, father, and 6-year-old brother, David.
As Bob and I walked underneath the railroad and interstate overpasses we stepped over more shredded wreckage and personal items and passed more smoldering bodies.
There were officers from every department, even Detroit and Grosse Ile, when I heard, "Hey, Bob, over here!"
It was my older brother, Corporal Dick Ankony, Dearborn PD.
"You look up there?" he said, shining his flashlight and illuminating the massive concrete beams overhead.
""God, there's nothing but guts up there!" I said.
"Fuck!" I yelled up at the sky. Then, to my brother, I said, "Last time I saw anything like this was the Tet Offensive." In those two short days of 1968, nine hundred Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed in and around Quang Tri City and my landing zone, and fifty thousand people were killed across South Vietnam.
There was nothing more to or do, so I walked with my brother back toward my car. We came to an emergency response vehicle that had cans of soda, and cheese and baloney sandwiches.
"Hungry, Bob? Take a sandwich," my brother said.
"Uh . . ."
Not waiting for an answer, he handed me a cheese sandwich and a Pepsi.
"Thanks Rich," I said, and walked away.
That was the last time I did police work. I ended my law enforcement career at the site of the second most disastrous airplane crash in U.S. history, just as I had begun my combat soldiering career in the biggest battle of the Vietnam War. Both times were at night, accompanied by men in uniform, surrounded by indescribable human carnage.