Southern Flight 242: Bringing My Father Home

January 24th, 2014 | produced by Will Coley with help from Jay Allison and Viki Merrick
photo of crashsite 1977

Southern Flight 242 crash site, 1977. Photo by Joe Parker via ashevilleoralhistoryproject.com

Editor’s Note: This story was hard for Will Coley to do. Even as he approached, he held it at arms length, but finally, he embraced it.

You can understand his hesitancy because the story is about his father’s death in a plane crash when Will was a boy. His feelings about that event had scarred over, and Will’s job here was to go dig back in. We at Transom worked with Will for many months during this process and it was powerful to watch and hear him get closer to that time, to hear how even his voice changed a bit, and to see him emerge back into the present.

Transom is presenting this story in cooperation with KCRW’s UnFictional and they’ll be premiering the piece today on the air. I hope you’ll give a listen to Will’s trip into the past. It will stay with you.
Jay A

About Southern Flight 242

When I was seven years old, my father died in a commercial plane crash. It’s a fact I grew up knowing and something I never wanted to look into, until now.

After I decided to make a radio story about the crash, I often wondered if it was the best choice as my first big project as a new radio producer. It took far longer than I ever expected, in part because it was so personal. But I realized that if I couldn’t answer tough personal questions, how could I expect others to do the same?

The initial kernel of the story idea came back in 1997 when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times about the 20th anniversary of the Southern Flight 242 accident (my family somehow missed being invited). And then in 2012, fifteen years later, I happened to be in Georgia for a conference that was 70 miles from the crash site. The key event in those intervening years was participating in the Transom Story Workshop. In Woods Hole, I learned much of what I needed to tell the story. I learned even more along the way.

Be vulnerable in your interviewing.

Researcher Brene Brown argues that vulnerability is vital for true human connection. Looking back on the project, I see now that I connected with my interview subjects out of weakness. In practice, this meant that my interview subjects knew that I was the child of a crash victim. We empathized with each other. Faith Thomas, the stranger I met in the airport, was scheduled to fly on the same delayed flight; we were equally powerless. Connecting with her was as simple as shaking my head and asking if she’d heard a recent update. Knowing about the power of vulnerability makes me wonder how I’d approach other interview subjects in the future. I’ve heard that oft-told story about Studs Terkel fiddling with his recording equipment and asking his interview subjects for help. Also useful, things like asking interview subjects for directions or advice on where to park even though those could be Googled. It also helps to be introduced by someone. I was fortunate to connect with Cherry Waddell of the New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Committee who was integral to my meeting with survivors and family members.

Get the best sound for the type of story.

I used an Audiotechnica 8010 omnidirectional mic throughout (mostly I paired it with a Sony PCM M-10 but I also had a Zoom H4N as backup). This was important for this project, since I knew that I’d need to be part of it and I also wanted to get location sounds. Unlike non-narrated radio stories where the interviewer needs to become a mime, I loosened up on reacting to the interview subjects and often pointed the mic at myself. It’s still funny to hear my reactions like affirming mmm’s and incomplete sentences. But that’s what happened! I tried to record interviews in quiet spaces but there were still noisy toddlers and determined dishwashers that wouldn’t be silent. In the end, I think all those extraneous sounds help tell the story. Recording on airplanes was a challenge, especially with flight attendants enforcing the no-electronics-during-takeoff rule, but I still managed to secretly record. I had a great foundation on this issue (and lots more) from my radio guru Rob Rosenthal at the Transom Story Workshop.

photo of Gordon and Will Coley

Gordon and Will Coley

Listen to yourself tell the story.

I once heard Robert Krulwich of Radiolab talk about how producers should listen to themselves when recounting a story and write from that. Since this project took so long to produce, I had lots of opportunities to talk about it. I started to notice what stood out in the retelling. If someone told me it was a great story, I asked why; what stood out for them. This information helped me construct the script but also helped me write the story the way I spoke it. Numerous people helped me tell this story by actively listening to me tell portions of it, particularly Reverend Rebecca Benefiel Bijur, Samantha Broun, Bob Carlson, Martin Cohen, Jacob Conrad, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Loris Guzzetta, Lea Thau, Transom Workshop alumni and members of Listen Up Los Angeles.

Edit both on “paper” and with audio.

If you have the time, transcripts are great for finding key phrases to use in a radio story. But I’ve struggled with the process of transcribing. I really don’t like to do it and can easily find lots of other things I’d prefer to do. Due to the amount of “tape”, I paid people to transcribe for me (thanks Alex Lewis, Bianca Giaever and Sharyn Bean). In my work as a consultant and videographer, I often work with clients on drafts of scripts. So I focused on getting everything on paper when sharing it with my editors. But that meant I used big chunks of transcription that I hadn’t listened to recently. When co-editor Viki “Dig Deeper” Merrick prodded me on my narration, I went back to the tape to put an audio edit together. And that’s when the real emotional connection started happening. The script was then useful in honing my new narration and shaping the piece. In hindsight, transcribing it myself might have helped me emotionally connect to the tape… but I might still be transcribing today. I was also very lucky to have the sage advice of Jay Allison in crafting the script and handling the final audio edit and mix.

Get comfortable when “tracking” (recording narration).

With information from Transom.org, I created a sound booth in my bedroom. It’s really just some sound foam, a mic stand for a shotgun mic and a blanket. I probably could have gone to a real studio but this intimate space helped me relax and make my narration sound more confessional (I hope). I took the advice of other radio producers and said the phrase “So here’s the thing” before every section and tried to speak from memory rather than read from the script. I had to record narration several times for this piece but Viki Merrick reminded me to listen to my “acts” (actuality tape) while recording. I brought my laptop into my sound fort and listened to clips before narrating sections. It really helped me connect to the tape and better match it in tone. For this, I used a brand new Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone and a Tascam DR-60D.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help with music.

Since the story was set in Georgia, I knew I didn’t want any banjo music (although I like bluegrass). Nor did I want plaintive pianos. Surprisingly no one in my family remembers what music my father listened to. I was stumped, but asked for the expert advice of Myke Dodge Weiskopf (see the list of music we used below). Through The Third Coast International Audio Festival, I also connected with musician Will Bangs who provided the final track.

Conclusion.

So what’s it like to be done with this radio story? Well, I feel lighter somehow. I resisted digging into the story for a long time but many people encouraged me to do it. I’m glad I did. Now it’s like all my memories related to the crash have been compressed, making room for me to think about other things… like more radio stories. I encourage you to explore those foundational stories in your life. Often you don’t want to go there because it might feel egocentric, self-aggrandizing or even schmaltzy. But those are excuses you have to push through. It’s important to tell your story, to understand yourself as a human being… who happens to be a radio producer. In the end, we learn from each other’s stories. I hope you can learn something from mine.

I’m curious what you think of these lessons I’ve learned (and what you think of the piece). Please leave a comment below.

photo of Gordon and Will Coley

Gordon and Will Coley

About Will Coley

Will Coley is a digital media producer, social media strategist, and trainer with experience in a variety of social justice campaigns and activism. Will has been an advocate and organizer with immigrants and refugees in Charlotte, New York/Newark, and Los Angeles, as well as in Zimbabwe and Great Britain. Through Aquifer Media, Will now designs social media strategies and digital storytelling for funding collaboratives, national nonprofit networks and local nonprofits. Will is a graduate of Wake Forest University, has a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University and participated in the first-ever Transom Story Workshop. In 2012, Will was selected as a SoundCloud Community Fellow to develop the Working Now project with other Transom Workshop alumni.

New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Incorporated is raising money for a permanent memorial near the crash site. Click here if you’re interested in learning more and possibly donating.

Listen to an interview with Will Coley and Transom’s Viki Merrick on How Sound.

Music used in the piece

Images


39 Comments on “Southern Flight 242: Bringing My Father Home”

  • Touching, inspirational and helpful all in one piece! It has me reflecting upon the personal stories that I want/don’t want to tell!

  • John M Covington MD says:

    Will-you did an excellent job in telling how you overcame something that had been on your mind for years. I can add a few comments. My medical partner[Dr Worthy] went to the scene within minutes after the crash and took charge of the triage. I would have, but I had just left to go see my 2 kids at a Marietta hospital that had been in a severe car wreck three days prior. As soon as I heard about the crash I returned to the Dallas hospital to help care for the survivors. One of them was Sandy. You may have seen our picture embracing in the New York Times when it had the story about the reunion. I am now 85 years old, but I remember that fateful day just as if it were yesterday. Thanks again for sharing your inspiring story. John M Covington MD

    • Will Coley says:

      Wow, thank you Dr. Covington! It’s amazing how telling this story is helping me connect with even more people. I ws sorry to have missed the reunion but I stumbled on the article about it in the New York Times.

  • Phyllis Inzina Reid says:

    Will,
    Loved hearing your story. thank you for sharing it. I was 16 when my dad, Philip Inzina, died in the crash. I’m the youngest of his 6 children. My dad was also an engineer (with International Paper Co) and was returning home to Mobile after a work meeting in Huntsville. We too were never contacted about the reunion. I only happened across the reunion/memorial information in the last few years and shared it with my mother and siblings. My mother is 89. I gave a speech in college about the accident and losing my dad and how I received the fatal call in the wee hours of the morning while I was home alone. I believe my speech did the same for me that this story telling is doing for you. I’m happy for your healing. I don’t know that I will attend any of the reunions but just maybe one day we will meet. Best wishes to you. I can always easily be reached by email preid@sti-k12.com or contact me on Facebook.
    Sincerely,
    Phyllis Inzina Reid

  • Faithe Thomas says:

    Will, this is beautiful! It brought tears to my eyes, thank you for allowing me into your personal world. Faithe Thomas

  • Kelley says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing, Will.

  • Gary Lacinski says:

    Wow Thank you for sharing! xo G

  • Kelli says:

    My Dad, Bobby Cameron, was also killed in this crash. Tears flowed as I listened to your story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Barbara Allison says:

    Will – that was, without question, one of the best radio “pieces” I have heard. It was moving, without being maudlin, and a great mixture of narrative and of comfort to you, from your very articulate “interviewees”. Excellent! Barbara Allison (Jay’s mother –so I have heard a lot of such personal documentaries!)

  • Will, it takes a certain kind of bravery to want to tell stories like yours: to tell the story to yourself and to others inside that story. Then a different kind of bravery to share it more publicly. What I appreciate about the work is your open-hearted sense of discovery. It’s not just emotional catharsis (as if that might not be enough), but I heard in this work a true desire to know more about yourself, your father, your family, and others whose stories are intertwined with yours. You deftly navigated the tricky territory of making the personal public in a way that creates a spacious field for listeners to discover something about themselves. We can imagine what it might be like to delve into our own secret/foundational family stories; to reconnect with ourselves as children and bring compassion to that experience, even many years later. We hear the wisdom of others who have faced tragedy and offer various ways of holding that experience. I’m curious about your emotional journey during the making of this piece. How did you begin to bring compassion to yourself as you reported and learned the facts of the story? Who helped you with that part of the project? What I am left with is a sweet sense of hope for reconciliation: for reunion, resolution, understanding and peace. And the kind words of Sandy Purl about the natural process of bringing your father home. Thank you for this work.

    • Will Coley says:

      Catherine, thank you so much for this amazing feedback. re: the question of my emotional journey, it helps to be in therapy! My therapist thinks this project has been very useful in sorting out how I feel. The story took a long time to put together (and it’s still continues). But Viki Merrick at Transom was pivotal in pushing me to dig deeper and talking it through. The narration stems directly from these discussions. But audio also played a big part. Forcing myself to listen to those old tapes and my own field recording, made me connect to the story in ways I didn’t anticipate. I’m so glad that you think the story “creates a spacious field for listeners to discover something about themselves.” Besides my own discoveries, I was really hoping that would happen for the listener.

  • A terrific piece. Well done!!

  • Will, you very elegantly told your story, but also the story of many others. Thank you so much for sharing the details not only of how you went about putting this story together, but of the story of your life and the personal impact of bringing your Father home. I worked very closely with Tommy Coe, who lived for about 2 months after the crash before dying of his burns, and with Randy Sherrill, who died instantly. Tommy was a mentor and a friend. Both were unique, intelligent engineers who remained in everyone’s memories long after they were gone. Over the years I have read many stories of Southern 242, but never heard recordings in their own words of Sandy Purl and others who survived.

  • Will,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It took strength and courage and we are all the better for it. I am sharing it in my LinkedIn group that serves people interested in Transportation Special Assistance – something that didn’t exist at the time Southern 242 went down. Many carriers call it a “Care Team” and the volunteer members help survivors and the families of those who died with the tasks and details that fall upon them in the aftermath of tragedy.

    Many of our group members are emergency planners for airlines, cruise lines and rail carriers. Hearing your story will help them better understand the short- and long-term effects these tragedies have on the people involved. That will lead to more effective plans for when future accidents occur. We consider the process of continuous improvement as one small way to honor the memory of people like your father who were lost and to salute the resiliency and resolve of those left behind. One of my mentors in this field, who herself lost her fiance in an air crash, said, “The ripples go far and wide,” You know that first-hand.

    If you have a moment, I would appreciate it if you would contact me by email. There’s something I would like to ask about your family’s experience.

    Thank you again for telling your story.

    Russell

    • Will Coley says:

      Thank you Russell. I hoped my story would somehow help other family members of victims. It’s great to connect with you.

      • Will,

        Outstanding – look forward to communicating with you. To comment here I entered my email address – is that something you can see? If not, please feel free to get in touch via LinkedIn or Facebook. I checked LinkedIn and found a few Will Coleys…are you the one in L.A.?

        Thanks,

        Russell

  • jonna says:

    I really enjoyed listening to this . I am working on a story about my own father who passed away less than a year ago. I have been struggling to find the root of the story and what I’m really trying to say — it’s helpful to hear where all these years of thinking and working have gotten you. I have a question about music: how did you decide and find the music? Since I’ve crafted many of the sounds in my story and recorded the interviews, using the music of others feels so impersonal. What was your approach?

  • Maxine says:

    I am Maxine Whitley Jester, Gordon’s cousin. My father was Javan Whitley from Stanley County, North Carolina. I remember the day we lost Gordon, one of the finest men on this earth. One of my favorite memories of him occurred when my son, Tommy, was just an infant. My husband was in the hospital, recovering from back surgery and I had to be by his side. Gordon, his sister, Iris, and their parents arrived at my front door and said they were taking the baby until I could come and get him. Gordon was holding the basinet and carried my son. I found out later that Gordon was the major caretaker for the baby. He loved people in general but he had a huge fondness for young children. This was in the year 1956. My son is now 58. He and Gordon would have been great friends.
    Will, your writing has brought back many wonderful memories of you, your dad, and your entire family. My love goes out to you all.

  • Catherine Cooper says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of this. I have always wondered about the families. You have my deepest sympathy for the loss of your father. Cathy Lemoine Cooper

  • Tom Kappel says:

    I do not mean to intrude on your memory. This was about your and your father, every minute of it. But I just recently realized that I was connected to this tragedy–that accident saved my life and that of many others. In 1998 I was on AirTran Flight 426 leaving Atlanta. We encountered severe hail heading into a storm that nearly destroyed the plane. Like 242, there were a number of mistakes made that led to the incident. But we did land. Deep in the NTSB report of Airtran 426, there is reference to the fact that the turbofan blades on our DC-9 engines were modified from the original to help the engine withstand severe hail, due to a previous incident. That incident was clearly Flight 242. Our plane was so severely battered that it made us all cry when they saw the mangled surfaces, missing nose, and shattered windows.

    For 16 years I have been haunted by that day, but grateful beyond expression for the things that did go right. And the only two things that went right were the heroics of a brave pilot and the resilience of that plane. Just this month I learned the history of Flight 242, and now I know who to thank. I am deeply saddened for all of you who suffered in 1977. And I will pray that you find peace. Flight 242 saved a lot of lives, including mine, and I am grateful.

    And the fact that you worked on this project 35 years later seems right to me. Thank you for creating this.

  • Will Coley says:

    Wow, thanks for this information, Tom. I never knew this. I always heard about how Flight 242 changed weather cancellation policies but not about plane design. I’m glad that we connected because of this radio story.

  • Marti Sherrill says:

    I came across your website when I did a search for Flt. 242 on this April 4th anniversary. My husband, Phillip Randolph Sherrill, was killed in the crash. Your program answered so many questions I had about the event. Your mother’s experience was similar to mine. My son Eric Randolph Sherrill was about your age (6) when his father was killed in the crash. For many years he suffered emotionally because of losing his father at such a critical age according to the therapists he saw, even spending 3 months in a psychiatric hospital when he was 16 and a senior in high school. I am going to recommend that he listen to your program.

  • Robertson Shinnick says:

    This was a gripping story, and though it’s about a tragedy, I liked the “positive affirmation” aspect to it. It was both interesting and moving. I live in Georgia and had never heard of our state’s worst aviation disaster until just now.

  • Buzz Payne says:

    I came across this piece while doing some flight planning and research for an upcoming trip. I felt compelled to research this flight after reading the CVR transcript and then I came across your link. With that being said, I want to thank you for allowing yourself to be vulnerable and, for making an emotional connection with so many of us who have taken the time to listen.

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