Monday, November 29, 2010

Heroic Doctor Alan Rumack Dead at 84

LOS ANGELES, Calif. --  Dr. Alan Rumack, one of the heroes responsible for the successful landing of distressed Trans American flight 209 to Chicago in 1980, has died of complications with pneumonia. He was 84.

Flight 209, as many remember, was plagued by a series of uncanny disasters. The most critical concern for the crew was transporting a very sick child to Chicago in time to make her connecting flight to Minneapolis. The girl, Lisa Davis, was in need of a heart transplant. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic had located a donor, but Davis would need to be on the operating table within six hours. To complicate matters further, inclement weather had impacted many of the available routes. A stalled storm front near the Dakotas, backed all the way to Utah, forced Captain Clarence Oveur and his pilots to plot a course over Denver. However, after encountering unusually heavy turbulence above Colorado, Trans American 209 had no choice but to climb to a higher altitude, compromising precious time.

The situation worsened when a breakout of salmonella was discovered, which eventually poisoned Oveur, his co-pilot and the navigator. Fortunately, a physician was traveling aboard the plane. Dr. Alan Rumack attended to ill crew members and passengers throughout the emergency. His description of the symptoms that incapacitated Oveur would prove instrumental a few years later in helping the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) understand the “Norwalk Virus” that wreaked havoc on cruise ships.

According to Rumack’s 1982 testimony before the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB), the outbreak “started with a slight fever and dryness of the throat. When the virus penetrated the red blood cells, the victim became dizzy and began to experience an itchy rash. Then the poison went to work on the central nervous system. Severe muscle spasms were followed by the inevitable grueling. At that point, the entire digestive system collapsed, accompanied by uncontrollable flatulence, until finally the poor bastard was reduced to a quivering, wasted piece of jelly.”

Oveur remained conscious long enough to help a flight attendant, Elaine Dickinson, activate the automatic pilot. He then directed her to attempt to locate a passenger with previous aviation experience. Dickinson’s former fiance Ted Striker, a veteran fighter pilot, was traveling to Chicago from Los Angeles on the same flight. Striker ultimately landed the plane with guidance from air traffic controllers.

Through his calm demeanor and quick thinking, Rumack directly influenced a positive outcome to an otherwise insurmountable disaster. There was no loss of life or serious injury to anyone aboard the plane.

Alan Rumack will be remembered as a brave and serious man. Rumack was born in 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, and grew up near the Arctic Circle in a tiny Canadian town of 15 residents. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, Rumack relocated to New York where he enrolled in medical school. He joins Captain Clarence Oveur as one of only three people from flight 209 to die.

Clarence Oveur passed away on March 17 of this year at age 83. He enjoyed spending his free time hanging around gymnasiums, watching gladiator films and studying the Turkish penal system. He is survived by his wife and their prized stallion. Less is known about Rumack, who remained a private man despite the national attention he earned after the event. He had an avowed fondness for lasagna and a profound dislike of Anita Bryant.

The Rumack family has requested a private funeral, and members of the press have not been allowed to attend. Reporters asked Blanche McGillicutty, an employee at the cemetery, to describe the general plans for the funeral. Ms. McGillicutty responded, “A funeral? It’s a sad occasion to honor the dead, where family members put their deceased loved ones in a wooden box and then bury them in the ground. But that’s not important right now.”