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Remembering USAir Flight 405: 30 Years later, a survivor reflects

On March 22, 1992, a commercial airliner en route to Cleveland crashed after takeoff, killing 27. Bart Simon, of Shaker Heights, was one of 24 survivors.

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — 30 years ago today — on March 22, 1992 — a commercial airliner en route to Cleveland crashed immediately after takeoff at New York's LaGuardia airport, killing 27 of the 51 people on board. 

Bart Simon was a passenger on that flight, heading back home to Shaker Heights from a business trip in New York. As the decades have passed, Bart tucked away the horrible images: the rubble, the lives lost, and the heartache gained for so many families.

"I would think about it, but eventually I let it go," he recalled in a recent interview with 3News. "I put it in a drawer and I put it in the closet, and I just left it alone.”

USAir Flight 405 was delayed. It finally took off late that March night headed for Cleveland Hopkins Airport, but came down as soon as it went up, 30 seconds to disaster.

"When the pilot took off, there was ice on the left wing, and it didn't get any lift," Simon remembered. "So the plane just went off the edge of the runway and down into the bay."

Credit: Richard Drew/AP
Rescue workers surround the remains of USAir Flight 405 at LaGuardia Airport in New York, March 23, 1992. The Cleveland-bound plane skidded off the runway on takeoff, clipped a signal shack, top right, before ending up in the frigid waters of Flushing Bay, killing 27 of 51 people aboard.

The aftermath was disorienting. 

"The plane had cracked open like an egg," he continued. "I just walked right out into the ... I didn't know where I was. I mean, I ran out, and it turned out I was running into the Flushing Bay. I was running into the water."

That water was just 28 degrees. Bart recalled seeing fire illuminating the scene, burning at the back of the plane. He climbed up rocks lining the waters of the bay back onto the runway.

Wreckage littered the area. Bodies were floating, some stuck in their seats, seatbelts fastened. A tragic scene in the dark of night.

Bart’s seat — 4F — is likely the reason he's speaking with 3News today.

"Here's the bizarre thing: I [was in] the window [seat]," he recalled. "You've got D and E and F, and the two people in D and E died. I don't discuss that much, but yeah, the two people sitting next to me."

The passengers sitting in 4D and 4E were Dr. David Porcelli and his wife, Karen. They never made it back to their home in Lyndhurst.

Thirty years ago, Simon spoke to WKYC about the same couple he chatted with at takeoff, expressing shock at the twist of fate. He attended their memorial, too.

"I didn’t find out until this morning that the couple sitting next to me did not survive," he said at the time. "That’s a difficult thing to understand, why you are spared and why they were not."

Attorney Jamie Lebovitz, of Nurenberg Paris, represented dozens of families impacted by the flight. He says the crash ultimately spurred new aviation safety measures. 

"It's an emotional anguish filled with sorrow and grief and a large loss," he added. "There have been very, very few cases since USAir 405 where a plane has gone down due to the lack of de-icing or the improper deicing materials."

At the time, Lebovitz says Type 1 and Type 2 de-icing fluid were typically used at LaGuardia and at most airports around the country. Today, in part because of litigation after the crash, Type 3 and Type 4 are now used — making flying safer.

"The longevity of the effectiveness of the de-icing fluid is much greater today than it was 30 years ago," he declared.

In the last three decades, Simon has done his fair share of flying. Asked if he still gets nervous, he says he conquered that fear just a few hours after Flight 405 went down. After all, he had to get home to Cleveland somehow.

Home. It's where he's watching his family grow, his two daughters and now four grandsons. It's the appreciation for even the smallest moments life gives us, and his daughter Michelle says it put everything into perspective. 

"To be sitting here at that same age and knowing that I have two young children and that could have been gone in an instant for him, whew, that's a lot," she admitted.

Her dad's journey helps put life into proper focus.

"It makes me now care about the little things," she said. "It's helped me get through this pandemic, knowing that we're going to see the other side, and keeping that optimism that he always has in my back pocket to teach my kids."

As painful as it can be to reflect, Bart will never forget how lucky he is to tell his story and of the other families who have lost those precious years. It's the story of a failed takeoff, but one that left him grounded in his appreciation for life.

"I've always been grateful for life anyway," he said. "I don't know if I learned anything other than an appreciation of how fortunate I was."

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