Announcers

Jerry Schemmel: Rockies’ Radio Voice and Survivor of Deadly United Airlines Crash Tests Life’s Limits

11 month old girl that Schemmel pulled from the wreckage of the ’89 crash died of a drug overdose in ‘09

Jerry Schemmel and Jack Corrigan

Jerry Schemmel stared death in the eye and survived. Of the 296 on board, 111 didn’t.

He played college baseball at DII Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1982 and his law degree in 1985. Before long, Schemmel became deputy commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association, reporting to Jay Ramsdell, the league’s commissioner.

On July 19, 1989, the two men were flying from Denver to Chicago on a United Airlines DC-10. They had switched flights at the last minute so the two men had to sit apart in separate rows. The aircraft was packed to the gills.

Some 37,000 feet in the air, an engine exploded and it caused the aircraft to lose its hydraulic power and the use of its horizontal stabilizer. The pilot and co-pilot, working like carpenters without tools, maintained their wherewithal to land the plane in Sioux City, SD.  

Given the number of survivors, 185, the crew was praised for its work. Schemmel sitting in row 23 was one of the lucky ones. His boss Ramsdell was killed.

After he sprung himself to safety, Jerry scurried riskily into the ruptured and smoke filled plane and rescued an eleven month old girl.

His next year was unsettling. One can only imagine. He fought through a difficult year of marriage, endured survivor’s guilt and found god. He later told an interviewer, “I realized that this thing was never going away, so let’s take it head-on.”

Schemmel pursued broadcasting and was hired by the Denver Nuggets as their radio broadcaster in 1992. After 18 years in the NBA in 2010 , he joined the Rockies where he still teams with veteran Jack Corrigan.

His book on the crash, Chosen to Live, was published in 1995. Jerry, 58, thinks about the crash regularly and now cherishes each day on earth.

Testing his physical will and strength, Schemmel competes in near impossible bike races. In 2015, he and his biking partner Brad Cooper won the two-person relay division, pedaling from California to Maryland in seven days. It’s chronicled in Godspeed: The Race Across America which opens next week in select theaters. The movie takes viewers through the enormous hardships that the duo encountered, from weather impossibilities, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.

Jerry and I reviewed his successful career on air and his unflinching drive to exceed his limits.

July 19, 1989 is a date that you will never ever forget. Your United flight went down, 111 of the 292 passengers were killed. How often do you think about the catastrophe and your near-death experience?

I still think about Flight 232 every day. Usually it’s just a fleeting moment, but it’s still there on a daily basis. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder of how precious life is and how much I need to treasure it.

The United flight attendant who escorted you down the jetway that day told you half kiddingly, don’t plan on getting much sleep on the flight because there were lots of kids on the flight.   She said it tongue in cheek, but it was true.

After you survived the harrowing landing, you saved an 11 month baby girl from the wreckage. Have you stayed in touch?

The story of Sabrina Michaelson, the baby I grabbed from the wreckage, did not have a happy ending. Very sadly, she died of a drug overdose in 2009. We still don’t know if it was intentional or accidental.

In broad-brush, how have the survivors coped?

I think, as a group, the survivors have done well in the years subsequent to the crash. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, we’ve coped as well as we should have expected to. We’ve all had our ups and downs in dealing the aftermath but we have moved on well.

Would you say that you were emotionally scarred from the incident or that there were positive takeaways that helped you enjoy a fuller and more successful life?

I have scars and smiles from the crash. I still have wounds that never completely healed – and probably never will. I still struggle seeing all the shattered lives that the crash left in its wake. And I still have pangs of survivor’s guilt, especially when I think about the little boy in the seat in front of me who died. But the crash has also had positive effects. First and foremost, it led me to God and a decision to accept God’s son as my savior. And that’s the greatest thing I have ever done!

You’ve said that when you ‘fight to the limit,’ you learn about yourself. What do you mean and give me an example?

I think we all get to a point in our lives when we think we can’t do any more or can’t keep going or can’t turn one more pedal stroke. But I have discovered we can reach down inside and find more. When we think we have hit our ceiling, we can all break through that ceiling and set another one. When the human spirit really HAS to do something, it simply can. We can reach deep, deeper than we ever thought we could. That was Brad Cooper and me in RAAM. There were times, for both of us during the race, where we simply didn’t think we were physically or mentally able. Because of weather, broken down bodies, exhaustion and sleep deprivation, we weren’t sure we could get back on a bike. But we both broke through and did it. Many times over.

godspeed

Tell us about the inspiration to produce GODSPEED: THE RACE ACROSS AMERICA.

The movie actually came as a surprise. After I decided to do the 2015 Race Across America as a two person relay team, I called a buddy of mine, Martin Butler, who was a videographer. Martin had a business producing commercials for local television stations. I asked him if he wanted to come along on the race with a camera and just get some video documentation. Well, he ended up with 550 hours of film – and decided to put a documentary together. Godspeed was the result. I really didn’t have a lot to do with it.

How long was it in the making?

It took Martin about nine months to come up with the first cut. He did it all in his little basement studio. He’s an extremely talented guy. What he did with this film is amazing!

What would you hope viewers take away from the movie?

I think RAAM is a great metaphor for life. If we let it, if we seize it, life can be a great adventure. But any truly great adventure involves risks and unknowns and great obstacles. But if we have a passion for the adventure and then perseverance, we can make it. And then what we become in the process, the person we emerge from the other side as, can be amazing. Everyone has his own RAAM. We hope we can inspire people to find it. And, more importantly, act on it!!

At what point, did you know you wanted to become a play-by-play announcer?

My senior year in college. I was playing baseball at Washburn University in Kansas and realized my last year there that I wasn’t going to get drafted or play pro ball, which was my goal. I decided the next best thing to being a player would to be a broadcaster. So I set off on that track.

You’ve done radio for the Nuggets and Rockies. Why the move to baseball and if it is more challenging, why so?

I absolutely loved doing play by play in the NBA. But I played and coached baseball and always sort of had in the back of my mind to do Major League Baseball. So when an MLB job came open in Denver where I had established myself as a broadcaster, I applied. And I was blessed to get it!

Where were you raised and which broadcasters growing up inspired you?

I grew up in a small town Madison, South Dakota. It has about 7,000 people and is in southeastern South Dakota. We got Minnesota Twins games and Herb Carneal was the Twins’ radio man. I loved him. Later on, I tried to emulate the late Jim Durham, who was doing the Chicago Bulls on the radio when I first got in the business. I thought he was a fantastic radio basketball play by play announcer! And Dick Enberg was my favorite on TV.

Have you through the years shared the crash experience with fellow sportscasters who can appreciate it; like the late Hot Rod Hundley who survived the Lakers’ crash in 1960 (all passengers did) and Jerry Coleman who was a fighter pilot during the war and earned an Act of Valor Award.

You know what, David, I don’t think I ever shared my story with Rod or Jerry. I’ve had plenty of colleagues ask me about the experience but have never discussed it at great length with any of them. If anyone asks, I am totally comfortable talking about it but I don’t usually bring it up.

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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