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A prayer of thanks from crash survivor

 A miraculous cocoon saved 16-month-old Melissa Trahan-Ferrara from certain death after Pan Am Flight 759 careened into her family’s Kenner home on July 9, 1982.  

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The plane’s impact threw Trahan-Ferrara from her bed and into the street, catapulting the toddler into a protective roll of carpeting, complete with an air bubble.
A mattress landed on top of her – further cushioning her tiny body from the raining debris – while water from broken pipes created a fire-resistant moat around her.

 

Trahan-Ferrara was found alive four hours after the crash, but her mother, Melanie Trahan, and older sister Bridget were among those who were killed instantly.

“To this day I am still amazed that I’m standing before each of you,” said Trahan-Ferrara, 31, whose passionate account of her survival story prompted a standing ovation from mourners at the disaster’s 30th anniversary memorial service at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Kenner.

 

Prayer vigil every July

The horrific crash that claimed the lives all 146 people on board and an additional eight on the ground is marked every year at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, whose parish grounds are the site of the event’s permanent memorial. This year’s gathering concluded with a poignant recitation of the deceased by the victims’ relatives and Kenner political and emergency officials.

 

Angels in her life

Trahan-Ferrara said she still feels the strong daily presence of her lost family members 30 years on and knows they are her “guardian angels,” smiling down from heaven.

“I wish I had the ability to take your pain away, to change things, but I know I can’t,” she said. “But what I offer you is a sense of peace, knowing that we are all in this together. We are all survivors, not just me. We are not alone, and in this world that we have today. That’s big, because most people don’t have that.”

Former Kenner Police Chief Nick Congemi, who worked two jobs at the time of the crash – as a police lieutenant and, coincidentally, as an employee of Pan Am, recalls changing out of his airline uniform and into his police blues as soon as he got word of the crash. Congemi said the victims and their families, who hailed from across the nation and world, would forever be part of “our Kenner family.”

“They were not just numbers, they were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends,” said Congemi, who compared walking through the crash site to “walking through hell.”

“I’ve been through many things in my life, but nothing can compare or prepare you for what we saw on that day,” he said, recalling how neighbors opened up their homes to emergency personnel charged with sifting through what was then the nation’s second worst air disaster.

 

Clergy first-responders

In her page one story on the disaster in the July 15, 1982, issue of the Clarion Herald, staff writer Florence Herman detailed the response of the local church in the crash’s immediate aftermath. The late Father Earl LaRose, then pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, recalled hearing a “mechanical type of thud” – initially assumed to be a loud clap of thunder  – during a meeting with his parish staff. He learned the true source of the sound when he got a phone call from his sister.

“We were at the crash site before the police,” said Father LaRose, who joined Msgr. Ignatius Roppolo, pastor of neighboring Our Lady of Divine Providence, at ground zero, and was later joined by Archbishop Philip Hannan and Father Peter Rogers, chaplain of the New Orleans police and fire departments. Father Ronald Calkins, then associate pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence, went to the airport to make himself available to the victims’ relatives.

Msgr. Roppolo, who remained at the site and temporary morgue through the night, told the Clarion Herald that there was little to be done in terms of last rites.

“We prayed for all the victims – in the plane and on the ground – and commended them to the care of the Lord,” Msgr. Roppolo said.

In the days following the crash, Father LaRose walked around the neighborhood to see what additional help he could provide, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans took up a special collection for the victims’ families in the ensuing weeks.

 

Cycle of life brings hope

At the July 9 memorial service, Father Richard Miles, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, rededicated and blessed the crash’s public memorial  – a low, semi-circular wall with the names of each victim, located less than a mile from the crash site and adjacent to the parish’s Our Lady of Fatima Garden. After a wreath of red roses was laid on the memorial to the bagpiped strains of “Amazing Grace,” Father Miles invited departing mourners to take home a blue votive as a memory of their deceased loved ones.

The day’s most indelible message was delivered by the crash’s “miracle baby” – Trahan-Ferrara – who said that now that she is a mother herself, she can finally fathom the depth of love her own late mother must have had for her. Fittingly, the baby is named Melanie – after her grandmother.

 

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Florence Herman, who wrote the original report on the Kenner crash, is retired.

 

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