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GALLAGHER: Flight 232 survivor believes in second chances
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GALLAGHER: Flight 232 survivor believes in second chances

From the 10 Sioux City Journal stories from the 25th anniversary of Flight 232 series
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SIOUX CITY | "I'm the plane crash guy," Jeff Miller, of Schaumburg, Ill., says by way of introduction. "I didn't sue United; I haven't had nightmares."

Miller asks for a seat change prior to Flight 232's departure from Stapleton International Airport in Denver on July 19, 1989. He seeks a row that offers more peace and quiet, if that's possible on a packed DC-10.

He's 28 and has a eulogy to write, heading home to Chicago to eulogize his grandfather, the late Phillip Muscari Sr.

Miller and wife Michele have been vacationing for two weeks in Durango, Colo., spending time with their two young children at the home of Michele's parents. When Jeff gets the call Grandpa has died, he cuts his vacation short to get home for the wake and funeral.

He has his Bible and a sheet of notes as he arranges his thoughts 37,000 feet above Alta, Iowa.

The tail engine explodes at 3:16 p.m. Debris severs hydraulic lines, making it nearly impossible for Capt. Al Haynes and his crew to control the jumbo jet. An emergency landing is planned at Sioux Gateway Airport as the aircraft circles right for 40 minutes, alarming Northwest Iowa and much of the Midwest.

Jeff Miller? He reads and sketches notes. Even in the final four minutes of the doomed DC-10's approach to Sioux City, Miller plans his immediate future.

"I thought we'd have a hard landing, maybe with some foam (for fire protection) on the runway. I'd then run to the Hertz counter, rent a car and drive to Lincoln, Neb.," he says.

The airport in Lincoln, he knows, offers a 7 p.m. flight to Chicago. Miller intends to be on it. He has a grandparent's life story to present.

That ultimate calm, his post-flight planning, waver just prior to touch-down as the plane enters Sioux Gateway far too fast. "God, I love you," Miller says. "I know you love me, but I can't pray. I'm too nervous to pray."

Flight 232 hits runway 22, right wing tipping, striking the ground and breaking. The plane separates, parts spinning into balls of fire, impact or inferno, killing 112.

Still in seat 16G, Miller hangs upside down as his section of the plane stops on its top. He leaves his seat in a haze, stopping only to look down at his bag. He grabs his Bible, his notes and walks from fiery carnage toward light. He steps into a field of Iowa corn, blue sky overhead.

"I'm walking around with a Bible and people think I'm the priest on call," he says. "They're saying, 'Father! Father!' and I'm saying, 'No, I'm a survivor.'"

Survivor. It's what he's been for 25 years. Immediately after the crash, a sense of destiny fills Miller. Rather than struggle with survivor's guilt, he grows curious, finding sense and purpose for himself, maybe others.

He finds a phone in an office at the 185th Iowa Air National Guard and dials 9 to place an outgoing call to Michele. He tells her he survived a crash landing in Sioux City with nary a scratch. He asks her to reach his family in Chicago.

Jeff later learns some family members in Chicago had begun to mourn his passing as well as that of his grandfather. Thankfully, their sorrow for Jeff is short-lived. Michele's call assures them he is alive, well, and, in hours, en route to Grandpa's funeral. 

Miller flies from Sioux Gateway Airport that night, and touches down at Chicago O'Hare International Airport around midnight. A rough landing ends a flight complicated by a series of summer storms.

He arrives at Grandpa's 10 a.m. funeral the following day. He steals the show, if you can say that. His Italian uncles celebrate his survival, toss him around on their shoulders and ask him to autograph that day's newspaper stories and photos, extensive coverage that details one of the country's worst airline disasters.

Tears of joy, hugs, high-fives, pizza and lasagna highlight what would otherwise be a somber gathering.

Jeff Miller delivers the eulogy. It becomes the first of an estimated 400 speeches he gives concerning Flight 232.

"For my grandpa, he came to a faith in God late in his life," Miller says. "Even after being really sick, he had some years and lived productively and attended church with my grandma, which is something she always wanted."

Phillip Muscari Sr. enjoyed his second chance. His grandson, from the pulpit, does the same this day. Don't wait for a health scare or a family crisis to seize a second chance, he implores.

"Or a plane crash," he concludes. "You can imagine how well-received it was at the time."

Miller becomes his own boss 11 years ago in starting a sign company in Schaumburg. He names it Divine Signs and Graphics.

Divine Signs? A nod to United Flight 232? "The whole company has been named after that event," he says.

Jeff and Michele Miller, childhood sweethearts, celebrate 31 years of marriage. Their four children are grown and through college. Two sons work with Dad at Divine Signs, an enterprise that has grown each year since its inception.

For "the plane crash guy," life has never been better.

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It took 25 years, but Ellen Badis got her wish. She met the aunt of a boy, Sean, who played with her son, Eric, aboard United Airlines Flight 232. Both boys were 5 years old. Eric and Ellen survived the crash; Sean and his parents died.

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