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30 years later: Akron woman relives miracle plane crash survival

USAir Flight 405 crashed in Flushing Bay in NY
Posted at 6:31 PM, Mar 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-21 18:48:55-04

AKRON, Ohio — When Kendra St. Charles looks back on surviving a plane crash into the freezing waters of Flushing Bay in New York City, the word "blessed" remains top of mind.

March 22 will mark 30 years since the disaster of USAir Flight 405. There were 51 people on board, including many form Northeast Ohio. Twenty-seven were killed. St. Charles was among the 24 survivors.

St. Charles has felt strong emotions as this particular anniversary approached.

"I think I'm emotionally raw right now. I think 30 years looking back, it's amazing," St. Charles said. "I think that's what's causing my tears today. I look back and think how blessed I was and all the joy that I've experienced."

St. Charles, a sales rep from Akron, was in New York for a trade show.

On the evening of March 22, 1992, she boarded the plane, which was preparing to take off in icy conditions.

Someone had taken her seat. A flight attendant told St. Charles to sit anywhere. Richard Lawson, an actor who starred in All My Children, was on the plane and moved up to first-class so St. Charles could sit next to another sales rep she knew named Sally.

"As they were de-icing the plane, I said, 'I can't believe it's icing.' You can see the little crystals forming around the windows as they were de-icing, and she (Sally) just said out of the clear blue, 'Do you want to change seats?' I said, 'Sure.' I didn't care where I sat. I just wanted to get home."

The flight lasted less than 30 seconds. Shortly after takeoff, an engine stalled and the plane went down.

"We were cartwheeling down the runway. I remember hearing people scream. I remember grabbing my left wrist and going down to some sort of crash position," she said.

St. Charles was tossed into the frigid water, still strapped in her seat and upside down.

"I was disoriented. Where was I? Gradually, I remembered to unbuckle my seat belt and rise to the top of the water."

But then, St. Charles came face-to-face with jet fuel and explosions on the surface of the bay.

"I imagined it was like being in a war zone where you just had hand grenades being thrown at you," she told News 5.

St. Charles waded through the greasy, grimy water and followed runway lights to shore. It was there where a man she calls her "guardian angel" comforted her. To this day, she doesn't know who the man is, but he wasn't a passenger.

"I said, 'I'm so cold.' And he said, 'Just lean on me and you'll be okay,'"

St. Charles suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung and bad burns. She was hospitalized for three weeks.

Kendra St. Charles is one of 24 survivors of the crash of USAir Flight 405 on March 22, 1992.

She would later learn that Lawson, the actor, had also survived, but Sally, who had switched seats with St. Charle, died.

"I really struggled with survivor's guilt and then I heard the term survivor's responsibility and I decided I was never going to figure out why I lived and others died," she said.

Instead, she focused on making a difference. St. Charles was appointed by President Clinton to a task force. She testified before Congress and helped pass the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act.

"It provides resources for families involved in an aviation disaster," St. Charles said.

Kendra St. Charles is one of 24 survivors of the crash of USAir Flight 405 on March 22, 1992.

Federal investigators determined that USAir had failed to take proper precautions to de-ice the wings. St. Charles said that also led to changes in the industry.

"They use a different type of de-icing fluid," she said.

Several hours before St. Charles spoke with News 5, a plane carrying 132 people crashed in China. There were no signs of survivors. That tragedy brought the memories of the USAir crash rushing back.

"It's like a scar that you are just going to rub it and you feel it again," she said.

St. Charles flew again within two years after the crash and continues to fly. She didn't want her daughter, who was a teenager at the time of the crash, to live with a fear of flying.

St. Charles is also a motivational speaker. She retells the horrific details of March 22, 1992, but also stresses the opportunity "to do good" in life.

She's writing a book titled "Crashing into Life: How Falling out of the Sky Taught me how to Soar." She hopes to have it published by the end of the year.

"Especially in these times, if we can focus on the positive and saying 'thank you' and 'what can I do to help?' It's my way of honoring the people who lost their lives," St. Charlies said.