Twenty-five years ago today, Brighton Township resident Bruce Schneider responded to one of the worst disasters in aviation history - the crash of Northwest Flight 255 at Detroit-Metro Airport that killed 156 people, leaving a 4-year-old girl as the lone survivor.
"That was probably the most horrendous thing I've ever seen," Schneider said of the crash. "Even the guys working with me who were Vietnam veterans and a lot of military veterans couldn't believe the devastation."
Schneider, who had been a police officer for 15 years, was a sergeant for the Wayne County Sheriff's Department in the road patrol office stationed at the airport at the time.
The afternoon of Aug. 16, 1987 had been a carefree one for Schneider. He had enjoyed a bike ride with his children only to have to rush to work when he got home and saw the news coverage of the crash on TV.
He was one of the first commanding officers to arrive and he remained at the scene for two days, taking short naps and food breaks at the office when he could.
His job on the scene was to coordinate all law enforcement operations, including rescue and establish a security perimeter because the crash site was so large. Rescue crews worked in complete darkness because the plane had knocked out the main electrical transformer in the area.
Finding a miracle
Schneider said he was working the north end of the scene with the Romulus Fire Department, who was spraying water over the wreckage.
In the darkness, the rescue crew actually borrowed a television cameraman, asking him to remove his tape, to use his battery pack and light up the scene. After that, Schneider said he remembers hearing someone yell "Quiet, I hear something."
That something turned out to be 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan. She was alive, but suffering from serious burns.
"Our theory was that they might have woken her up from the water from the fire hoses for all we know," he said. "She was pretty buried into all of the rubble."
After 25 years of refusing media interviews, Cecilia is now speaking about the crash that claimed the life of her father, mother and brother, along with 151 other people. Channel 4 WDIV recently aired footage from the film Sole Survivor, direct by Ky Dickens, where Cecilia finally shares her story along with 13 other sole airplane crash survivors.
"This Sole Survivor project is more about a group and that's why I'm willing to get involved and be part of something bigger," Cecilia said in footage of the film shared with Channel 4.
There will be a memorial service held in Romulus today for the family of Flight 255 victims.
Remembering the scene
The wreckage stretched about 400 yards from Wick and Middlebelt Road down past I-94. Two of the deaths resulting from the crash were drivers on the road when the plane hit.
"The intersection just channeled all of the debris like a chute," he said. "It literally swept up cars that were in there. The cars looked like somebody had actually taken them and used them as a basketball and dribbled them. You could hardly look at them and see that they were cars, they were just round. You always hope for the best, but I didn't think anyone could possibly survive."
Working in the dark wasn't even the biggest hurdle, according to Schneider.
"The Airport Fire Department uses foam on aircraft fire disasters instead of water so they sprayed most of the wreckage area down with foam," he said. "The problem we had is that we were now wading through ankle to waist deep foam trying to find survivors."
After the crash
Schneider worked for the sheriff's department for 28 years before retiring in 1999. Flight 255 was the first of three airline crashes he worked. After 9/11, he spent time as an Assistant Federal Security Director with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on an anti-terrorism task force in Ohio.
Currently, he is running for office as a Livingston County Commissioner in District 1 against former City of Brighton Mayor Kate Lawrence.
Schneider said he has no plans on attending today's memorial service.
"You have so many incidences that happen so many times and if you let them bother you, put them on a calendar and let them buzz in the background, it's just overwhelming," Schneider said. "So you do your job, you do it the best you can and then you move on. And that's what I've done. I don't want to stand there and tell the family members how devastating it was, what we found - they don't need to know that."