Thirty years ago, Paula Medaglia of Oregon survived the crash of an out-of-fuel DC-8 that plowed into an open swath of land near Northeast 157th Avenue and East Burnside Street in Portland.
EUGENE, Ore. — You may have had a harrowing holiday travel experience. Odds are, Paula Medaglia can top it.
It was 30 years ago Sunday that she survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 173, an out-of-fuel DC-8 that plowed into an open swath of land near Northeast 157th Avenue and East Burnside Street in Portland.
Ten of the 189 on board died. Medaglia, 32, of Leaburg, Ore., escaped with an arm bruise.
“People will ask: Did your life flash before your eyes when you knew you were going to crash?” she says. “No. I knew I was going to get out of there somehow.”
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She had come to Eugene in 1976 to get a second master’s degree, from the University of Oregon and was returning from a holiday visit with her parents in Boston.
Approaching Portland, the landing gear made a terrible noise when deployed. “Instead of clicking into place, it crashed into place,” Medaglia remembers. “There was this huge boom and the whole plane shook.”
She was seated near the rear. the pilot, she recalled, announced that they would circle while they checked out the plane.
“Those were the days when you could still smoke on a plane, and nearly everybody, including myself, lit up,” Medaglia says. “The woman next to me had two children on board, and as we were flying around I tried to keep it lighthearted for them.”
But the mother wasn’t as low key. “She turned to me and said, ‘If something happens and we get separated, will you take care of my little boy?’ “
At 5:44 p.m., the flight crew was told to brace the passengers for landing. But Medaglia says communication in the rear of the plane was poor.
“We saw people up ahead putting on coats and getting out blankets, so we did the same.”
She said there was no panic in the tail section.
“I remember looking out the window and seeing streetlights and houses and said to the woman next to me, ‘Get in the crash position. I think we’re pretty low.’ You couldn’t hear the engines; they’d gone out.”
Three miles short of the airport, the jolt of a wing hitting the roof of a vacant rental house shook the plane.
“You heard this noise of the wing ripping the roof, and then boom, boom, boom, these lurches. I buried my head in my coat.”
Then the plane was still. When an exit slide was ripped by tree limbs, she found an exit at the back of the plane and jumped about 10 feet to the ground.
She saw no casualties. Most of the victims were up front.
Pilot Malburn McBroom survived and later was blamed for being so concerned about the landing gear, which apparently was fine, that he allowed the plane to run out of fuel.
Medaglia and many other passengers, however, credit McBroom, who died in 2004 at 77, for setting the plane down in an open area and possibly saving their lives.
They were taken to the airport by bus. “Someone had a bottle of Jack Daniels and we were passing it around,” Medaglia says.
She is now 62 and senior program services coordinator for the Lane Workforce Partnership.
The biggest impact on her, she says, has been nervousness while, ironically, in a car, and the empathy she feels for passengers when she hears of other plane crashes.
While her parents were alive, she continued to fly back to see them with a little help from Valium. But now that her folks are gone, she says, no way.
“I haven’t flown since 1999. I don’t want to push my luck.”