ROMULUS, Mich. (WXYZ) - When Flight 255 crashed moments after takeoff, 21-year-old Romulus firefighter John Thiede raced to the scene, only knowing some sort of plane had gone down.
“It was when we got to Smith Road that we saw the cockpit and we could see the word 'West'... one of the firefighters Dan Kish said we have a big one and we knew right then it was a passenger airliner," recalls Thiede.
Thiede, now a lieutenant with the Romulus Fire Department, was the first on scene on the north side of the crash along with Dan Kish and two others.
The team started extinguishing flames, when Dan heard moaning.
“Me and Dan split up, he went southbound, I went northbound on Middlebelt Road, checked three or four passengers to locate somebody," remembers Thiede. "After about my fourth one I saw a chair upside down, I moved the chair to the right, I checked the lady underneath, there was no vital signs on her and then I saw the arm move.”
That arm belonged to 4-year-old Cecilia Cichan. She was burned and bruised but alive, and still strapped to a booster seat. She was on top of another passenger.
“She was actually on top of Phyllis Zigler," says Thiede. “She was actually found under westbound 94 under that viaduct.”
Thiede would use a short board to rescue the little girl. The board now hangs at Romulus Fire Station 4. Roy Brindamour, an emergency medical technician, started working on the little girl.
Hours later, Thiede would see Kish once again, and he told him the moaning he heard was a survivor.
Until then, Thiede had turned his attention to the cockpit, and got a helping hand from a Channel 7 photographer.
“It was dark and we were retrieving the pilots out of the cockpit," says Thiede. "We actually used the camera from the Channel 7 crew to help us navigate through the cockpit area.”
Thiede and his team would spend roughly 30 hours in a row on site, helping to recover bodies and secure the scene.
“It was just part of my job and hopefully it never happens again,” says Thiede.
As for Cecilia, Thiede would visit in the hospital, and that would be the last time he knew anything about her until she reached out to him over the Facebook page for Flight 255.
“She wanted to know some questions,” says Thiede. “I think more about how people were that night, for her mom and dad, and her brother, and maybe people suffered and things like that.”
They communicated by email and by phone. And Cecilia invited John to her wedding. It was the first time he saw her since she was discharged from the hospital. He had always been curious.
“She grew up, she grew up to be happy," says Thiede. "She went to college, and got married, and she’s successful.”
Now, 25 years later, while thrilled to see Cecilia grow up, the memories of that tragic night still linger for John Thiede. It's almost unavoidable.
“Every day we travel that road, I can see how it was that night," he says.
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