On Aug. 2, 1985, Delta Flight 191 crashed on landing in Dallas. Of 163 people on board, just 27 survived, including Wendy Robinson Fernsell, a flight attendant from West Palm Beach. It has taken her 30 years to tell her story.

wendy robinson

Wendy Robinson Fernsell (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

By Jan Tuckwood

Palm Beach Post staff writer

 

The first jolt hit as they flew over Louisiana — just a hiccup of turbulence, big enough to light the “fasten seat belt” sign but not enough to stop flight attendant Wendy Robinson from collecting cups and trays and tidying the plane for landing.

That bump was no big deal, Wendy thought.

She’d seen worse in her six months flying for Delta.

They’d be landing in Dallas-Fort Worth in 15 minutes, so she slipped off the flat shoes she wore to serve passengers on Delta Flight 191 and put on her navy blue pumps with 2-inch heels.

Delta required flight attendants to look immaculate when they walked through a concourse: Crisp navy blue uniform, stockings, high heels, polished fingernails, neat makeup and hair.

Wendy Robinson looked the part.

Blond and green-eyed, popular and vivacious, she was 23 and a classic all-American beauty.

She played competitive tennis at Forest Hill High School in her hometown of West Palm Beach. At Stetson University, where she had graduated with a French major a year before, she managed to balance books and boys, making the Dean’s List while socializing with her Alpha Xi Delta sorority sisters.

Wendy (bottom left), with her older sisters in the mid-'60s: Kathy (top left), Andrea (top right) and Darcy (next to Wendy).

Sisterhood came naturally to her. The youngest of the four Robinson girls, Wendy was the bubbly baby, “the fun one,” as she called herself when they were growing up in the sunny, small town that was West Palm Beach in the 1970s.

Taking care of people came naturally to her, too — a skill she learned from her mother, Beverly, who stayed home with her girls when they were little and named Wendy after a poem she read in a women’s magazine: “Who will lick the batter bowl when Wendy goes to school?”

As Delta Flight 191 flew through the sky on Aug. 2, 1985, Wendy thought of her family, and of her fiancé, Pete. This was a short trip. She’d be back home soon.

She took her seat for landing — seat 4-R, the jump seat at the back of the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar — and placed her feet on the floor and her hands under her thighs, the “brace position.”

She had trained for a month before she ever worked a flight to get basics like this right, to know what to do in any emergency.

From her seat, Robinson could see just a sliver of the aisle. A beverage bar obscured her view of the wide-body jet, a plane with four sections and 302 seats, about half of them full on this flight from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, with a stop in Dallas.

Arrival time at DFW was scheduled for 5:52 p.m. Central Time, but when the flight was 70 miles east of the airport, Capt. Edward “Ted” Connors got on the public-address system to announce a delay.

Bad weather was up ahead, so they’d take a more northerly route into DFW. Enjoy the scenery, he said, pointing out landmarks below.

Minutes later, all breezy chatter stopped.

The sky darkened. Rain streamed along the windows. The ride got bumpy.

Soon, the rain came hard, pelting the plane like bullets, rattling the metal. The plane began dropping, as if pushed by the hand of God.

“There was a giant drop — everyone gasped,” Wendy recalls.

The L-1011 rolled from side to side and kept dropping, like a roller coaster out of control.

Lower, lower, lower … through the darkness, passengers could see the prairie rising from below.

Wendy started praying out loud, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

She closed her eyes, felt the plane touch ground and exhaled for a moment.

Thank God, she thought. We’ve landed.

But then the plane bounced up again, and the horror hit her: “We’re not at the airport.”

The runway was more than a mile away.

Last-minute replacement

Wendy Robinson wasn’t supposed to be on Delta Flight 191. She was called in at the last minute, when another flight attendant got sick.

That happened a lot to new flight attendants. For their first six months in the air, they were on probation and on call.

“It was stressful,” Wendy said. “We were at the mercy of the schedule.”

She complained about it the day before, at lunch with her lifelong friend, Jody Goodman Blumberg.

Wendy Robinson (left) and Jody Goodman as teens.

“I don’t know how long I want to keep doing this,” she told Jody. “I went to four years of college, and here I am, slopping hash at 30,000 feet?”

The two had met 20 summers before, at The Breakers beach club in Palm Beach, when Wendy was 3 and Jody was 5.

“This little blond girl fell on the sand right in front of me,” Jody recalls. “I helped her up, and that was it, we just clicked.”

They were neighbors, too — both grew up on Murray Road in West Palm Beach, with the Intracoastal Waterway as their backyard. Before Flagler Drive was built, they could jump from sand piles right into the water.

“Wendy was always fun … and always determined, even as a little girl,” Jody said.

She went to work for Delta because she caught the travel bug after spending her junior year in Dijon, France.

“I wanted to see America,” Wendy recalls. And Delta was opening a Paris hub soon — a good opportunity for a French speaker like her.

She was stewardess skinny — 117 pounds — perfectly put together on the outside, but ill-equipped on the inside for the reality of the flying life.

“I saw a lot of hotels and late nights at airports, which was hard for me because I’m a homebody,” she recalls.

And she was hungry, literally. She was so broke, her go-to meal was instant oatmeal — and the occasional “chicken or beef” airplane meal she could snag when a passenger didn’t want it.

She thought, “Maybe I’ll do this for a year and then go to law school.”

Her father, James Robinson, was an influential West Palm Beach lawyer, a colorful man who had divorced her mother — his high school sweetheart — when Wendy was 7.

All her life, Wendy’s true ambition was to be a mom like her own mom — loving and supportive, and able to pull herself up by her bootstraps when times got tough.

Beverly Robinson with Wendy, shortly after Wendy became a Delta flight attendant.

After her divorce, at age 40, Beverly went back to college.

“I had to find out, ‘Who am I?’” Beverly recalls.

Her daughters were so proud, they bought Beverly the denim skirt she wore to her first day at Palm Beach Junior College.

She managed to see that all her girls got college educations and considered Wendy’s career choice “wonderful” — even though Wendy wasn’t so sure.

On Aug. 2, 1985, Wendy was the last of eight flight attendants to sign in for Delta Flight 191, so she got the least-desired seat: 4-R, in the back, in the smoking section.

“I was a smoker then, so I didn’t mind,” Wendy recalls.

She was so much newer and younger than the other flight attendants, she didn’t know them well. But she said hello to her colleagues in the smoking section — Vicki Foster Chavis, in seat 3-R, and Jenny Amatulli, in seat 4-L.

Flight attendants Vicki Foster Chavis (left), Jenny Amatulli (center) and Alyson Lee.

She knew Alyson Lee, too, because Alyson lived in West Palm Beach, and they were both in the Junior League. Alyson was working in first class.

Wendy told herself: Just persevere one more day — to Aug. 3, her six-month anniversary in the air — and she’d get a boost in pay and more control of her schedule.

Maybe she’d like flying more if she could hold out. Just one more day.

‘Get up! Get out!’

Delta Flight 191 hit the ground at 6:05 p.m. Central Time on a Friday night.

The first impact — what Wendy hoped was the landing — was a prelude to terror.

The plane bounced back up, then slammed into the ground again.

It bumped across Texas Highway 114 — the highway that skirts the north end of the airport — sliced off the top of a Toyota and decapitated the driver.

The L-1011 was skidding fast — at least 200 mph — out of control and breaking apart.

The disintegrating left wing grazed a water tank near the airport’s freight area. The plane pivoted and slammed into a second water tank.

Instantly, three-fourths of the plane exploded in flames.

The tail of the L-1011 cracked off and thrust backward like a slingshot — as a fireball of ignited jet fuel raced toward it.

Over the screeching of metal, Robinson kept praying out loud: “God grant me the serenity…”

She couldn’t hear screams — just the ferocious shriek of the plane tearing apart.

Gil Greene could hear the screams.

The 21-year-old Florida State University student was in seat 35J, a window seat on the right side. He felt the plane push down onto the highway. He saw everything: the plane hitting the car, then the water tanks.

Gil Greene at his sister’s home in Texas shortly after the crash. He was a 21-year-old FSU student in 1985.

“I felt the plane split under my feet,” he recalls. “It split right under my feet and over my head.”

Passengers in his row had to make a split-second decision: Stay in their seats and be incinerated. Or jump out while the plane was moving and try to flee the flames.

Greene decided: “If I’m going to go, let me go sitting in my seat.”

He had seen some passengers unbuckle their seat belts and try to jump away from the inferno. Each was sucked out of the plane and killed.

One by one, the remaining passengers in his row — all soaked in jet fuel — lit up like torches.

He watched the fire rush toward him, felt it burn his side.

He prayed: “I said goodbye to my family.”

And then, Greene got lucky.

Rain poured into the cabin and doused the flames on his body.

When the plane finally stopped, his seat was one of two seats in row 35 still intact.

He found himself 30 feet up off the ground, pitted with wounds from plane shrapnel, dangling from the jagged front of the tail section, now open to the rain and wind.

Gil Greene’s seat is on the far left, one of two seats hanging sideways. He was hit by a flying door and other debris. The plane landed on its left side but wind – with gusts of up to 84 mph – pushed the tail section back upright. (AP photo)

“I was drenched in jet fuel,” says Greene. “I thought I’d become a human cigarette.”

He knew his only chance was to swing out over the debris under his feet and jump — three stories down.

A dozen rows behind him, Wendy watched in horror as flames raced toward her.

“I saw a fireball come down the aisle.”

She closed her eyes. “If I’m going to burn to death, I don’t want to know,” she thought.

The jet fuel, rain and smoke made it hard to see, but she knew for certain: The tail of the plane landed on its left side.

She was hanging up in the air, held to seat 4-R by her seat belt and shoulder harness.

She looked across the plane and saw Jenny, in seat 4-L. Jenny was not moving.

“Oh, my God, maybe she’s dead.”

Then Wendy’s training kicked in: “Release your seat belts! Get up! Get out!” she shouted.

She saw a glimmer of light shining up from the opening in the plane below her.

One shoe had flown off during impact, and she kicked off her other high heel.

Using the armrests as a ladder and headrests as a rail, she climbed to the light … down, down, down, until she came to the place where the jet was ripped open.

“I felt the plane split under my feet. It split right under my feet and over my head.”
— Gil Greene

She jumped. And ran.

Through the pounding rain and gale-force wind, she ran, barefoot, across the muddy field and away from the wreckage.

She saw a woman face down in the mud and asked her: “Are you OK?”

The woman said “no,” but Wendy kept going. She could see ambulances heading toward the scene.

She got 75 yards away and heard a man say: “You’re OK, too.”

It was Gil Greene.

“She was dazed, in shock, and I told her to keep running,” he recalls. “I kept saying, ‘We gotta go, we gotta go. We need to get as far away as we can.’”

They saw a police car racing toward them and got in.

It was hailing now, and the hail pounded so hard that Wendy thought: “That hail is going to kill us!”

Or the wind would. It was so strong it had pushed the tail section of the L-1011 back upright.

In Wendy’s shock and daze, she worried about the rest of the crew.

She had to find them, she thought. She had to find Jenny and Vicki. And Alyson, who was up in first class.

Gil took off his white Converse sneakers and gave them to Wendy, then she jumped out of the police car.

She pushed through hail and wind and rain, she pushed through flying debris — “pieces of plane, fuselage, chairs, papers … and people.”

She saw Vicki, who had been in seat 3-R, walking in the mud.

She asked her: “Where is first class? Where is B zone? Where is C zone?”

They were gone, all gone.

“An ambulance came up, and the driver told Vicki and me to get in the front seat,” Wendy recalls. “Vicki kept pulling at her hair, tugging at it.”

The inferno had singed her hair.

The tail section was the only recognizable piece of plane after the crash of Delta Flight 191. Wendy Robinson’s seat had been in front of the exit where the ladder is leading. (AP photo)

‘Hang on to the son of a bitch’

The National Transportation Safety Board report detailed the last moments of Delta Flight 191 in brutal and clinical detail:

“On August 2, 1985, at 1805:52 central daylight time, Delta Air Lines Flight 191, a Lockheed L-1011-385-1, N726DA, crashed while approaching to land on runway 17L at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Texas. While passing through the rain shaft beneath a thunderstorm, flight 191 entered a microburst which the pilot was unable to traverse successfully…”

Of the 163 people aboard, all but 29 were killed. Two more died later from injuries, including Kathy Ford, a tech executive from Dallas whose brain stem was crushed in the crash. She died in 1995 — after being in a coma for 10 years.

The cockpit recording captured the terrifying moments as the microburst shoved the jet to the ground.

“Hang on to the son of a bitch!” pilot Connors commanded to copilot Rudy Price at one point.

Their last words: “Oh, shit!”

Of the 11 crew members, only Wendy Robinson, Vicki Chavis and Jenny Amatulli survived. Jenny suffered serious injuries.

The last two bodies positively identified in the wreckage were flight attendants.

It was hard to tell them apart because they followed the Delta standards: All the same size, all dressed alike.

‘One gutsy lady’

Darcy Robinson, Wendy’s sister, got a call from a nurse in Dallas before she had a chance to worry: Wendy was fine. She was in the shower shampooing the jet fuel from her hair.

Because Wendy had gotten on the flight at the last minute, her family didn’t know she had been in danger.

They immediately went to Dallas to be with her — her mother, sisters Kathy, Andrea and Darcy and fiancé Pete — all flown there by Delta.

In true Wendy fashion, she did not want sympathy or attention. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said.

Her fiancé rented a car, and they drove home, passing by the wreckage.

“I wanted to see it,” she said. She needed to see it, to try to absorb what happened.

“I was numb. And so thankful to be alive.”

A week after the crash, Wendy told a Palm Beach Post reporter: “I just have a couple of bruises on me, around my hip from the seat belt.”

When asked if she could remember details from the crash, she said: “I remember it, but I don’t want to comment.”

Talking about the crash in the local newspaper would take 30 years.

Learning to live with it? That has taken just as long.

“Nobody comes out of that kind of trauma without injury,” says Dominic Zaccheo, the Stuart therapist who Wendy consulted shortly after the crash, when she realized she was not fine. “Wendy suffered all of the guilt associated with being alive.”

Dominic Zaccheo, a therapist in Stuart, treated Wendy Robinson for post-traumatic stress after the plane crash. “She’s one of the bravest people I have ever treated.”

Why me? Why am I still here? What is my purpose?

All those questions haunted her. And so did the woman she passed by that horrible day, the woman who was facedown in the mud.

She was wracked with guilt over that woman. Could she have done more to help her?

When Wendy started treatment, Zaccheo thought, “She’s got to be one of the luckiest women on planet Earth.”

Not just because she survived, not just because she beat the odds in a game she had no control over — but also because she took control of her own fear.

“She’s one gutsy lady,” says Zaccheo, now 71 and still practicing. “There are two types of people in this world — those who say they can and those who say they can’t, and they’re both right.”

“Wendy said she could.”

And she did.

She was terrified to get back on a plane, but there was no way she would let that terror rule her life.

So Zaccheo made a plan.

First, he took Wendy to lunch at the 391st Bomb Group, a restaurant right alongside the runway at Palm Beach International. Just to see the planes take off and land.

Then, Delta parked an L-1011 on the ground at PBIA, so Wendy could sit in the plane. Just sit there.

“Nobody comes out of that kind of trauma without injury. Wendy suffered all of the guilt associated with being alive.”
— Dominic Zaccheo

Then, Zaccheo and Wendy flew to Atlanta together. The smell of the jet fuel scared her, and so did sitting up front, in first class.

“That was hard,” she remembers. “But I told myself, ‘I can do this.’”

Wendy also began to confront other hard things. She examined everything about her life: her friendships, her behavior, her faith.

She stopped smoking. “God didn’t save my life to have me kill myself with smoking.”

She broke off her engagement. “I was in no shape to be getting married.”

She spent more time with her sisters. “They nurtured me and made me feel safe.”

And she started seeking more meaningful relationships, with people she didn’t have to be “fine” around.

“I had many, many acquaintances,” Wendy recalls, “but these were surface relationships, and I wanted deeper connections.”

Zaccheo called this “collecting Green Stamps.”

“You know those S&H Green Stamps we used to collect and then trade in for things? Our friends are the Green Stamps of our lives. Be sure you collect them, because one day, you’ll need real love and support, and that’s the time to start calling in those Green Stamps.”

Her first Green Stamp: God.

Wendy decided: “If I want to know what God’s purpose is for me, I better know God.”

Finding peace … and purpose

Sherry Morgan Farrell, one of Wendy’s high school friends, knew God.

Sherry also knew what it was like to survive trauma.

Sherry Morgan Farrell prayed with Wendy.

In 1971, when Sherry was 9, two gunmen posing as policemen entered her family’s home on Pamela Lane in West Palm Beach. They tied up Sherry and her mother, Fannie, and locked them in a closet. One gunman guarded his hostages and the other forced Sherry’s father, James E. Morgan Jr., the president of Palm Beach Bank and Trust Co., to drive to the bank.

Morgan pleaded with his employees: “Don’t call the police. They have my wife and daughter at home.”

The gunman stole nearly $600,000 — the largest bank heist in South Florida at the time. Morgan returned home to find the other gunman gone, and his wife and daughter safe.

The FBI nabbed the robbers within weeks. Sherry put her fear in the hands of her Lord.

Some time after the crash, Sherry went over to Beverly’s house to visit Wendy. She found her coloring in a child’s coloring book — it was part of her therapy to keep her mind busy.

“I put my hands on her hands, and we prayed,” Sherry remembers.

“Christ, we know you are right beside us … we are never alone. You want good for us. You adore us. You are real and alive and here to heal our wounds, to soothe us, to bind our broken hearts…”

Wendy had always gone to church. She’d been confirmed at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

And yet, until after the crash, until Wendy was vulnerable and cracked open and ready for a powerful savior, Christ had been one of her acquaintances.

She embraced him “with her whole heart” in November 1988.

“I wasn’t a bad person before the crash,” Wendy says. “But because of the crash, because I pursued God, I found a better purpose. The crash was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it taught me what’s important. It opened me to rededicating my life to Christ … and to loving people more deeply.”

She learned to love herself more, too, and forgive herself.

After searching for a long time, Zaccheo found the woman who had been facedown in the mud after the crash. She had survived.

“Wendy slept better after knowing that,” he said.

‘Why did we survive?’

Because of Delta Flight 191, Wendy Robinson surrendered to the God who grants serenity.

She also leaned on him to soothe everyday turbulence, the kind that rocks every life.

So did Gil Greene, now a project manager for a contracting business, who lives in Jupiter.

“Why did we survive?” he says. “The answer is further away now than it was 30 years ago. It doesn’t make any sense. But when people ask me if I believe there is a God, I say, ‘There’s zero question there is a God.’ It’s all a mystery, and only he knows why.”

On that day long ago, they were granted “God’s unmerited favor,” Wendy says.

They did nothing to deserve it. That’s what grace is, she says. “God has a purpose and a plan.”

Wendy never flew as a flight attendant again.

A financial settlement from the U.S. government — she and the two other surviving flight attendants claimed the FAA and the National Weather Service did not do enough to warn about the wind shear — helped her pay bills for a while, then she worked a series of jobs, as a fitness instructor and a French teacher.

In 1998, she separated from her first husband, Andy Bouchlas, when her daughter, Kendall, was 3 and her daughter, Hadley, was just 6 months old.

She told friends then, “If God wants me to marry again, he’ll have to drop the guy on my doorstep.”

God did.

Shortly after her separation, Wendy was pushing Kendall and Hadley in a stroller along Flagler Drive when she spotted an old boyfriend from college, Charles Fernsell.

Wendy Robinson and Charles Fernsell during their sophomore year at Stetson in 1982.

Charles was nursing his own wounds. He, too, was going through a painful divorce — and he wasn’t particularly thrilled to see Wendy, because she had broken his heart in college, 16 years before.

Wendy told Charles right away: “I’m so sorry for how I treated you in college. I’m a different person now.”

They took it slow.

Wendy was touched to discover that Charles had saved a monogrammed belt she had done in needlepoint for him. He had saved her letters, and she had saved his. The two of them had saved a favorite photo, a picture of themselves from sophomore year.

“God put us both on that same corner on that same day,” said Charles, a financial adviser who grew up in Palm Beach. “All those years we were apart, all those years in the middle, just vaporized. We were back where we started.”

They became sweethearts again. And then spouses.

Wendy Robinson Fernsell and her husband Charles with daughters (from left) Hadley Bouchlas, 17, Layton Fernsell, 10, and Kendall Bouchlas, 20, at far right. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Their daughter, Layton — as blond, bubbly and beautiful as her mother — arrived 10 years ago.

When the family flies together, Layton takes the window seat.

She wants to see it all, wants to experience it all, wants to “grab life with both hands,” her dad says.

Wendy usually chitchats with the flight attendants and tells them she used to be one, too.

Wendy Robinson Fernsell and Layton, her youngest daughter. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

She tells them she survived Delta Flight 191. They remember that crash because it changed aviation history. Today, every commercial plane has radar to detect wind shear.

They always want to know what it was like, surviving when so many people died.

“And I say, it was scary. I prayed. I did what I could do. I wish I could have done more,” Wendy tells them.“I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor.”

She is also the mother she always wanted to be — a mother like her own mother, a woman who pulled herself up and found purpose.

This fall, Layton will start fifth grade at American Heritage School in Delray Beach. Wendy has a new job there: teaching French.

Layton is fearless, her father says.

And why wouldn’t she be?

Her mother shows her every day: Living with an open heart is bravery indeed.



Wendy Robinson interview: Part 1

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Part 2

CMGd Single Player

Video by Joe Forzano/Palm Beach Post staff.