On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost an engine and all hydraulic controls on its way from Denver to Chicago, tumbling into the Sioux City, Iowa, airport in a fiery crash landing that was captured on video. Though 112 passengers died, 184 miraculously survived, largely as a result of the heroic efforts of the crew and rescue workers on the scene. Tending to those workers and the wounded that day was United Methodist minister and National Guard chaplain Greg Clapper, who just happened to be driving by with his family when he saw smoke and went to investigate.
“Some of the bodies were still strapped in their seats, and some had been thrown clear,” he recalls. “I approached some of the wounded passengers who were lying on the ground and talked to them briefly. I asked if anyone was still trapped in the wreckage, and they pointed toward the cockpit. I ran up to the cockpit and talked to some of the crew members while they were still trapped.” Clapper later wrote a book about the experience, When the World Breaks Your Heart: Spiritual Ways of Living with Tragedy, and even made a cameo appearance as himself in an ABC-TV movie starring Charlton Heston.
This year, the survivors, the Sioux City community, and the loved ones left behind marked the 25th anniversary of the incident with a series of events. Clapper emceed the official anniversary memorial service July 19 in Sioux City and preached at three worship services the following day. He also was interviewed extensively for a new book, Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, written by Laurence Gonzales and published by Norton & Co. Working at the Flight 232 crash site has informed Clapper’s academic work at UIndy and his 24 years of service as a commissioned chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, retiring recently as a colonel. He deployed overseas five times during the first and second Gulf Wars, served three stints as a chaplain on the psychiatric ward of the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and served four years on the headquarters staff of U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany.