The plane crash that changed this Colorado Rockies broadcaster’s life

Tail of United airplane at Denver International Airport. | Location: Near Denver, Colorado, USA. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Tail of United airplane at Denver International Airport. | Location: Near Denver, Colorado, USA. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) /

It’s 1:00 PM local time at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport on Wednesday, July 19, 1989. There’s a United Airlines Flight (Flight 232) that is leaving the airport that will take off within the next 10 minutes. It will leave Denver for O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before continuing on to its final destination of Philadelphia.

285 passengers and 11 crew members are on the flight, including the 24-year Commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and his 29-year-old Deputy Commissioner, who just boarded after they were bumped from a morning flight and boarded this flight on standby.

Those two are just going to be on the flight from Denver (where their offices were) to Chicago before they will catch another flight to Columbus, Ohio, which is where the CBA will hold their draft tomorrow.

The players that could be drafted by the CBA teams will sign in hopes to keep their dreams alive to get to the NBA. A few years prior, the NBA and CBA came to an agreement in which NBA teams could sign CBA players for 10 days as injury replacements. If they needed them for longer, the players would then sign a longer contract.

Most famously, though, coaches such as future Hall of Famers Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson were part of the league as coaches before returning to the NBA or going to the NBA.

But the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner would never make it to Columbus. In fact, boarding the flight will be one of the last things that the Commissioner (Jay Ramsdell) will ever do. The Deputy Commissioner was future Colorado Rockies radio broadcaster Jerry Schemmel.

United Airlines Flight 232: A turning point in Colorado Rockies broadcaster Jerry Schemmel’s life

United Airlines Flight 232 left Denver at 1:09 PM Mountain to arrive in Chicago in roughly two hours.

The first half of the flight is pretty uneventful, as most flights are. The plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10, had made 16,997 successful flights before this flight in its 18-year career.

But an hour and seven minutes later as the plane was making a slight right turn in northwest Iowa (about 50 nautical miles northeast of Sioux City), the fan disk of the second of the plane’s three engines explodes.

Immediately, the autopilot is knocked out. Captain Al Haynes (who had been with United since 1956) and his first officer, Bill Records (who had been with a number of different airlines since 1969 until United hired him in 1985) attempt to regain control. After all, sometimes, planes can be controlled after an engine explodes. But their attempts were, largely, unsuccessful.

They were unsuccessful because, as Flight Engineer Dudley Dvorak noticed, the plane had no fluid pressure and the three hydraulic systems read zero. The fragments of the second engine exploding had cut through the hydraulic systems of the other two engines, rendering them virtually useless as well.

While the plane was “marginally flyable,” finding a safe landing anywhere was “virtually impossible.”

The plane was naturally pulling to the right so, almost immediately, it was decided by air traffic control that the plane would have to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, which was west of the plane (or behind them).

But that would be easier said than done, as Jerry Schemmel recently told Rox Pile in an exclusive interview.

"“It was a weird circumstance because we had 45 minutes from the time the explosion to touchdown,” Schemmel told Rox Pile. “So (the pilots) were trying to regain control of the plane, which they eventually did somewhat. But then the plane kept wanting to bank off to the right on its own.“So every time we got heading into Sioux City, the plane veered off course. You had to come back and line up again. We do that five times. That’s why it took us so long–45 minutes– to get there.”"

While all of this is happening, the eight flight attendants take Schemmel, Ramsdell, and the rest of the passengers through all of the emergency procedures. Since it took 45 minutes for all of this to happen, the attendants went through the emergency procedures twice.

"“I think about the time that we came in for that final approach,” Schemmel said. “We were probably as ready as we could be for a crash landing. And we knew it was going to be that. Captain Haynes told us over and over ‘we’re in trouble’ or ‘we don’t have any control of this plane. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve gotta listen. Flight attendants, you got to know what you’re doing.’“So we knew we were going to crash. And so I think by the end, it was like ‘let’s just get this thing over with. Let’s go.'”"

Haynes, Records, and Denny Fitch (a United pilot that was on the plane as a passenger that volunteered to help try to land the plane) tried to land on one runway but they were unable to line it up. Air traffic control told them that they could try to land on Interstate 29 (which runs right by the airport) but, instead, they tried to line up for a second runway.

Unable to control their speed (250 MPH instead of a recommended 150 MPH), their sink rate (1,850 feet per minute instead of a safe 300 feet per minute), and with minimal steering, the plane missed the runway.

The plane landed on its right wing, which spilled fuel and it immediately engulfed the plane. The tail section broke off from the force of the landing. The rest of the plane bounced several times, breaking the rest of the aircraft into many pieces.

Schemmel described what the impact felt like and the immediate aftermath and “chaos” inside the cabin.

"“First, when we touched down it was just incredible impact,” Schemmel said. “I mean, for all the introspecting and thinking about what it might be like, I don’t think anybody was ready for it as hard we hit. It was just like we dropped the sky at the ground, which is basically what we did, but because they had they were coming in so fast and so and dropping so quickly.“And immediately inside the plane, it was complete chaos. I mean, within the first couple of seconds after we’re down, we hit that we slammed down so hard. Bodies are being thrown about inside the cab and some are still strapped to their chairs. The chairs had been thrown. There’s smoke and fire and debris whipping around inside the cabin for the first couple of seconds after we get down.”"

He was one of the people still strapped in his chair after being thrown upside down and backward on impact and sliding for “almost a mile.”

"“I was upside down and backward sliding for almost a mile,” Schemmel said. “And finally, we came to a halt. I’m hanging in my chair upside down. I was one of the very few people in that area in that position. I finally unbuckled my seatbelt and got down on the floor. Then I had to take off to the front of the plane.“I wanted to go back for some reason. The emergency exit was behind me. But me and a couple other guys just started moving forward because we realized a lot of people in our area were not survivors and they just weren’t moving. We knew they weren’t alive. And I finally got to an opening and I remember it’s where the back of the plane broke off from us.”"

Schemmel looked for anyone that he might be able to pull out. He didn’t … at first.

“I remember getting back there and looking back in the smoke and see if I could grab anybody,” Schemmel said. “I didn’t see anybody and just stepped out into a cornfield because we ended up in a cornfield.”

But the candid and self-deprecating Schemmel recalls that he stopped because he heard something.

"“That’s when I heard a baby crying,” Schemmel said. “And, honestly, I’m not trying to downplay what happened or be overly humble or anything, but I did not think it through it. It just happened. I heard a baby crying. And next thing I know, I’m back inside the plane. And there was, as it turned out, an 11-month-old baby girl who had been sitting in row 11 right behind first class.“She was thrown to the back of the plane in row 27 or 28 into an overhead compartment that it closed on her and locked. So the (compartment) is below me because we’re upside down. So I finally figured out in the smoke and grabbed the child and got out of the plane the second time.”"

That child was Sabrina Lee Michaelson, who turned one year old nine days after the accident.

The aftermath of United Flight 232 for Rockies broadcaster Jerry Schemmel

Jerry Schemmel was sitting in seat 23E, toward the middle of the plane. Sitting seven rows behind him against the window was CBA Commissioner Jay Ramsdell. Schemmel was able to save Michaelson but after the crash happened at 4 PM C.T., he was trying to find Ramsdell, who was sitting in seat 30G, against a window. And he was unable to find him.

“I was looking for him all night,” Schemmel said. “I didn’t sleep at all.” He never did find him as Ramsdell passed away in the crash. Ramsdell was one of 112 people who died from the crash (111 on-site or shortly thereafter and one passing away a month later).

From row 22 through row 39, 90 of the 112 total deaths on the plane occurred. Only 51 people in those rows survived. Schemmel happened to be one of them.

He took in a lot of smoke and he “had trouble with that for several weeks.” He also suffered from “severe whiplash” and “some pretty severe bruising” but he was relatively unscathed, at least physically.

United sent a plane out to Sioux City and, believe it or not, Schemmel flew back to Denver the very next day.

“By four o’clock the next afternoon, I’m exhausted (after not sleeping all night and looking for Ramsdell). I’ve got no adrenaline left,” Schemmel said. “United brought a plane in to take anybody back to Denver that wanted to go so I signed up for that. So I got back into play 24 hours later, but I was so exhausted, I found a seat, fastened my seat belt, and slept through the whole flight. So I slept all the way back to Denver for an hour and a half.”

That wasn’t the end of it, though. In fact, far from it.

Schemmel, who was also doing some freelance broadcasting and legal counsel for the CBA as well, became the director of the CBA. For the next 10 months, though, he struggled mentally, especially with PTSD of what he saw and dealt with.

“I had all these crazy things going through my head and I was struggling with all the aftermath of the crash,” Schemmel said. “The little (18-month-old) boy that was sitting right in front of me (and playing peek-a-boo with Schemmel earlier on the flight) died in the crash.”

He promised the mother of the 18-month-old boy after the crash that he would save him but she needed to escape. He couldn’t keep his promise.

As Schemmel described with Bryce Johnson of the UNPACKIN’ It podcast in May, Schemmel struggled with survivor’s guilt, anger, depression, and his marriage was “falling apart.” He quit his job as the CBA Commissioner just two months after being named to the position.

“For the first time in 30 years, I was knocked down and I could not pick myself back up. I could not do this anymore on my own,” Schemmel said on the podcast.

Schemmel then turned to God to help him turn things around. He had “never” opened a Bible before but had gone to church occasionally with his wife, Diane, who he had been married to for four years at the time. Schemmel believes that the crash and the aftermath is what made him recognize God and turn things around for him.

“I finally slept that night. I hadn’t slept in 10 months,” Schemmel said. “I felt ‘man, something has come over me’ and that was the beginning for me.”

Shortly thereafter, Schemmel took a job hosting a radio show with former Broncos linebacker Jim Ryan. Within a few months of that, he was hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA for two seasons as a broadcaster before he was hired by the Denver Nuggets. He was broadcasting games with them until the Rockies hired him as one of their radio broadcasters in 2010.

After a two-year hiatus in 2020 and 2021, iHeartMedia (the parent company of 850 KOA) re-hired Schemmel as the team’s secondary play-by-play broadcaster to Jack Corrigan prior to the start of this season.

Schemmel is still married to his wife, Diane, and has been for 36 years now. They have two children, Maggie, 29, and Ryan, 26.

While things have definitely gotten better for Schemmel since the crash, it is still something that he carries with him today and is willing to talk about candidly as the 33rd anniversary of the crash is upon us.

The baby girl that Schemmel saved out of the plane passed away at the age of 19 due to a drug overdose. Schemmel told Rox Pile that he had kept up with her on a fairly regular basis until she passed away in July 2008.

Recently, he shared a memorial of her on Twitter.

He and his wife have kept close to “20 or 25” survivors or family members of survivors of the crash and in 1996, he also wrote a book, Chosen to Live, about his experience in the crash.

“I didn’t write the book until five years after but a lot of (the memories) were still there,” Schemmel explained. “So I just started journaling. I did it one year on the road with the Nuggets and just did it every day on the road. By the end of the season, I looked at my journaling and it was a book. It was basically the book that I had been thinking about writing.

“I had been approached by some publishing companies to write a book and I never really wanted to do it. And now I had it, I thought, well, if I got a message, then I’ll go ahead and do it. So the book started as a journal and then it was a book.”

You can find that book on Amazon as well as his second book, The Extravagant Gift: Every Person’s Path to Salvation, which was published in 2008 on Amazon as well.