A noon prayer service marking the 10th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 was held June 1 in Berry Chapel on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University.
The service was patterned after the season of prayer conducted by Ouachita faculty and staff following the crash in June of 1999. It included prayer, music and reflections by Charlie Fuller, Cindy Fuller, Dave Ozmun and Amy Gaden Taylor, all members of the 1999 Ouachita Singers travel group that was involved in the crash. Also participating in the service were Ouachita faculty and staff members Jeff Root and Phil Hardin.
On Tuesday, June 1, 1999, at 11:51 p.m., American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed when the pilot attempted to land at Little Rock National Airport during a thunderstorm. Twenty-five members of the Ouachita Singers travel group were on board returning from a trip to Europe.
Ouachita senior James Harrison died from injuries sustained at the crash site. Rachel Fuller, 14-year-old daughter of Ouachita faculty members Charlie and Cindy Fuller, and Ouachita senior Kristin Maddox Cheng were admitted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital with severe burns. The others in the Ouachita group were treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries and released. Rachel Fuller died two weeks later as a result of her injuries.
Today’s prayer service began with a moment of silent prayer on behalf of the 228 people aboard an Air France flight from Brazil. The plane was reported missing hours before the prayer gathering.
Following the hymn, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of Psalms 23, several participants shared brief reflections about the crash, its aftermath and lessons learned over the past decade.
Charlie Fuller, Ouachita’s former dean of the School of Fine Arts, led the Ouachita Singers on their European tour. Noting that “there are more stories of the crash of Flight 1420 than we can count,” Fuller said, “There are stories of corporate greed and incompetence, stories of terrible suffering and loss” as well as “heroic stories of those who selflessly aided each other and placed themselves at risk in order to bring total strangers to safety.”
Recounting the “thunder, lightning, hail, torrential rain and fire,” Fuller declared, “Evil screamed at humanity through needless suffering – physical, emotional and spiritual.
“In response to the screams of evil and the cries of humanity, God spoke; He whispered,” Fuller added. “And as usual, He didn’t give us the answer we wanted but He enveloped us in the answer that we needed. The answer was and is His presence.”
Emphasizing that “God is all about relationship,” Fuller said both his daughter Rachel and James Harrison were also “all about relationship.”
“We can learn from their example even today,” he noted. “Do we invest in people or in ourselves? … Here were two young people who got it right, who truly understood what Christ meant when He said put others first.
“How does God give us hope?” he concluded. “Through His presence embodied in those who stand with us when we need it.”
Dave Ozmun, professor of mass communications, also was among those aboard Flight 1420. Even amid the confusion, disorientation and “suffocating black smoke” in the wake of the crash, Ozmun said, “I do remember very vividly knowing that God was there. I was very conscious of His presence.”
Reflecting on that experience a decade later, he said his hope today is that “wherever I go and whatever the circumstances, I will never forget that God is here.”
Jeff Root, dean of Ouachita’s School of Humanities, was serving as OBU’s director of public relations at the time of the crash. Recalling a flood of media calls “from every major news organization in the nation and some from other countries,” Root said, “Crashes of commercial airliners always receive major media coverage, but a crash with survivors creates a media frenzy.”
Among the countless news stories, Root recounted Fuller’s interview with Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. When Sawyer asked if the crash and his daughter’s injuries had shaken Fuller’s faith, his response “was one of the greatest testaments to faith I have heard,” Root said. He noted that Fuller told Sawyer, “Diane, there are times in your life when your faith has to mean something. It can’t be something you just talk about. It has to be something that empowers you to live life.”
Following the funerals for James Harrison and Rachel Fuller, Root added, “In the midst of all the pain and turmoil, I could clearly see Charlie and Cindy reaching out to comfort those of us who wanted to comfort them.”
Affirming faculty and staff members “who love and follow the Lord” and “who care deeply for the growth and well being of their students and former students,” Root said such commitment helps ensure that “Ouachita will make a difference in the world and will be worthy to be forever identified with the passengers of Flight 1420.”
By Trennis Henderson, OBU Vice President for Communications