Thirty-two years after the crash of Delta Flight 191, the memories come rushing back to its youngest survivor.
He remembers the sound: “A horrific God-ending-like hell sound. The sound was just so epic and then hearing people screaming.”
And suddenly landing in a puddle of mud: “I just remember being extremely freezing cold on the ground. As hot as it was. I just remember the hail hitting me and being freezing really quick and then the fire,” Richard Laver says.
The crash of Delta 191 occurred on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 1985, when a quick-firing thunderstorm produced heavy winds that slammed the plane to the ground as it was approaching Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
The jet struck a car driving on Texas 114, killing its driver, then hit a light pole before careening across the north end of the airport, slamming into two water tanks and exploding. Most of the survivors came from the tail section of the plane that stayed intact.
Laver, then 12, was thrown clear of the wreckage, one of 27 survivors. His father, Ian Laver, was one of 136 people who would die in the crash. One passenger, Kathy Ford, died in 1995 after being a coma for a decade after the crash.
In an interview this week with the Star-Telegram, Laver said he did not have a good feeling about getting on the plane in Fort Lauderdale. He and his father were flying from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, with a stopover at DFW. Once arriving in LA, he and his father, a cousin of tennis great Rod Laver, were to drive to San Diego for a youth tennis tournament.
The night before, Laver, who had flown countless times, told his mother that he’d had a premonition that the plane would crash. His mother dismissed his concerns telling him that’s “a one in a million” event.
Reluctantly, he boarded the Lockheed L-1011, a wide-bodied airliner. As it flew through sunny skies from Fort Lauderdale to DFW, Laver relaxed, convinced his anxiety was the result of nothing more than a bad dream.
But when he saw a dark cloud cell outside his window as the plane approached DFW, he was again flooded with fear.
He hurried to the bathroom and tried to compose himself. When he returned to his seat, he covered his lap with a blanket so the flight attendants couldn’t see that he had left his seat belt unbuckled.
That decision would save his life.
‘Pain was beyond excruciating’
As the plane descended toward Runway 17L, a microburst pushed the jet toward the ground, producing a deadly wind shear, or a dramatic change in wind speed. The crash would speed up the installation of Doppler radars at 45 high-risk U.S. airports by 1997.
As the plane bounced across Texas 114 and crashed short of the runway, Laver was thrown out and landed in a puddle of mud and water that came rushing toward him from one of the fractured water tanks. He said a motorist who saw the crash ran toward him, saw his hand sticking out of the rushing water and rescued him as he was starting to swallow water.
Though he survived, it would take months for injuries to heal, including spending two weeks in Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
“I was burned deep — second-, almost third-degree on my face, hands and arms,” Laver said. “Deep lacerations from a piece of the fuselage were stuck in my abdomen. I had a severe neck sprain and a fractured right knee with torn ligaments but severe smoke inhalation was the worst fear of the doctors at Parkland Hospital.”
He said the pain from burns was unbearable.
“I was immersed in hot water to scrub my burns for the first four weeks after the accident and I had a bedside nurse for the first six weeks back home. I needed a daily scrubbing with a scrub brush on all of my burns three times a day along with a special burn cream and white wraps,” Laver said. “The pain was beyond excruciating. Luckily, because I was 12, my scars almost all healed.”
But the psychological toll would last far longer. With his father gone, life at home was difficult.
He left home at age 15. He continued to play tennis and would later play professionally until the age of 30, never reaching the heights of his famous relative, Rod Laver.
He said he always believed his destiny lay somewhere beyond tennis after the crash.
Understandably, he had nightmares and was scared to fly and said he had to get drunk to board an airplane.
On the 10th anniversary of the crash he attended a gathering of victims’ families and survivors in Florida. But when he saw faces of others, and the toll it had taken on them, he turned around and left.
He met his wife, Michelle, in 2003 when he was working as a tennis pro at the Palm Springs Racquet Club in Palm Springs, Calif., where he had lived an existence he described as similar to the Kevin Costner character in the movie Tin Cup — a washed-up, disinterested golfer.
He said his life lacked focus until he met Michelle. Three years later, his daughter Kate was born, and he said he found his purpose.
Kate had cerebral palsy and was forced to live on a liquid diet.
At the age of 4, she was down to 15 pounds and Laver was convinced she was about to die of malnutrition.
“I could survive Delta 191 but I couldn’t have lived if Kate had died,” Laver said.
So he began making his daughter non-dairy shakes packed with organic ingredients and plant-based proteins devoid of gluten, soy and corn.
Kate recovered, but officials at the school she attended said her family couldn’t keep sending shakes in a mason jar with her to class. So Laver set off to get a packaged product that would comply with the rules.
That would lead to creating the Santa Barbara-based Kate Farms, a line of nutritional drinks that now competes with large companies and is provided to patients at hospitals and sold at retail stores like Sprouts and Central Market.
“After what I’ve been through, the odds certainly don’t mean anything to me,” Laver said.
Overcoming his fears
But for the business to succeed, Laver would have to overcome his fear of flying.
One investor said he had qualms about financially supporting the company because of Laver’s history. But Laver prayed and started flying several times a week to promote and build the company.
Initially, he avoided DFW Airport but as business started picking up in Texas, he realized he had to come back.
In 2016, Laver visited the crash memorial at DFW Airport with his wife and a sales representative.
Instead of breaking down, Laver looked at the water tanks and told Michelle he was over it.
Since then, he’s flown into DFW regularly. And he regularly calls on Parkland, where he spent two weeks after the crash.
“I make a habit of flying Delta to Dallas,” Laver said. “I try to fly Delta just to be a rebel.”
This year also marks a milestone.
His father was 44 when he died in the crash and a week after this anniversary, Laver will have lived longer than his dad.
“At the time of the crash, I thought he was so old but now I realize he was so young,” Laver said. “I think he would be proud of what I’ve done to help Kate.”