University of Indianapolis Religion and Philosophy Professor Gregory Clapper said he witnessed a catastrophic event involving a plane crash on July 19, 1989, and now he is being portrayed in a Chicago play. United Airlines Flight 232 had malfunctioning hydraulics, so the plane was stuck doing right-hand turns and had no control, according to Clapper. The plane crashed into the nearest runway in Sioux City, Iowa. Out of 296 people, 112 died as a result of the incident.
“Since that was at my base, and I was a chaplain at the time, I had responsibilities to deal with major traumas,” Clapper said. “I got there 15 minutes after the crash. I was involved in the ministry that day and then for the next two weeks, both with passengers [and] survivors, but also with caring for the caregivers. Being an Air Force Chaplain Corp, we are told after a tragedy to do three things: we are to care for the injured, honor the dead and care for the caregivers. That means helping people in their spiritual struggles in such a traumatic event…. And so it helps to have someone to talk to and pray with and go to worship services with.”
Clapper got to know the passengers and aides well enough to write his own book, “When the World Breaks Your Heart: Spiritual Ways of Living With Tragedy,” according to Clapper. He said the book “describes how tragedy enters everyone’s lives, and maybe not in a dramatic plane crash, but that people die that we wish wouldn’t die, or we have bad things happen to us and people misuse their freedom.” Clapper said the book is a resource for people when the world does, indeed, break their hearts.
“That doesn’t mean it takes away all of the sting, or your heart won’t be broken, but one of the reasons why I wrote the book is to get people to see [that] even when the world does break your heart, there are resources to deal with it,” Clapper said.
Survival author Laurence Gonzales also had written a book about the tragedy of the crash, titled “Flight 232.”
“He talks a lot about the rescue workers and what it was like for them,” Clapper said. “Since I was the chaplain, I was very involved. So some of my story was also included in this, including me doing one of the weddings for a flight attendant. The book came out at the same time as the 25th anniversary, so that garnered a lot of publicity.”
Because of the publicity Gonzales’ book generated, Freelance Director Vanessa Stallings adapted the book for a production at The House Theatre of Chicago. When Clapper first heard about it, he was concerned they would not get it right.
“Fortunately, I think the playwright and the actors got it just right,” Clapper said. “They didn’t make it an exploitative kind of thing or a sensationalistic tabloid headline. They just focused on the human story. They showed what it was like to be a flight attendant in such a circumstance, and what it’s like to be a passenger and a chaplain. I was very pleased.”
2002 UIndy alumna and actress Brenda Barrie plays the chief flight attendant, Jan Brown. Barrie has been praised for her acting in “United Flight 232” by those who knew Brown and were connected to the tragedy.
“I’ve had people in the audience that are a part of the aviation committee, whether they themselves are a flight attendant or pilots and said they know Jan Brown, and they thought I did it justice,” Barrie said.
Barrie has a monologue in the production that comes straight from Brown’s thoughts as the flight was going to crash and what she had to say to passengers on the flight:
“I am preparing for the emergency landing, and I recognize that our crisis is the worst imaginable. There are over 50 children on board today and four of those children are what we call ‘lap children.’ They are children that fly for free; they are children under the age of two that fly for free because they sit on their parent’s laps. A woman with her baby son on her lap is asking me what she should do. In the case of an emergency landing, we are trained to tell parents the following: If the child is on your lap, place your child on the floor and hold them there. And this is what I tell her to do. I tell her what we have been trained to say and as she places her son on the floor, the idiocy of this idea strikes me with its full force.”
Barrie said this play is a story of compassion and community.
“This play is coming from people’s words and emotions, and when they saw their lives were flashing before their eyes, they had 44 minutes in the air to contemplate, ‘Oh my gosh, I might not make it. And if I do, here are all the things I want to do differently….’” Barrie said. “And I think people leave this play in a sense of awe and appreciation for life and for the relationships we have in our lives.”
“United Flight 232” is showing at The House Theatre of Chicago in Chicago, Ill., until May 1. For tickets, visit boxoffice.printtixusa.com/housetheatre/eventcalendar.