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'Their spirit lives on': Northwest Airlines Flight 255 victims remembered in Phoenix on 35th anniversary

Shortly after take-off, 156 people were killed in one of the deadliest plane crashes in US history.

PHOENIX — Thirty-five years ago, countless lives were changed forever when an airliner crashed shortly after take-off, killing everyone on board except a four-year-old girl.

Northwest Airlines Flight 255 is one of the deadliest aviation crashes in the nation. In total, 154 people on their way to Phoenix died that day in Detroit on August 16, 1987. Two people on the ground were also killed. 

On Tuesday, those who had loved ones on that tragic flight remembered them with a memorial service in Phoenix.

Each one of the victims' names was read out loud right next to the memorial placed outside City Hall.  

"She was a flight attendant," says Elizabeth Schaffer-Smith, who lost her mother in the crash. Schaffer-Smith says she was 10 at the time. "She was wonderful," Schaffer-Smith says, "I have wonderful memories."

Justin Behnke was 7 when his mother died in the crash. He still remembers that day vividly. "It was me and my sister's family at the house, you know, [I] just got done fishing with my best bud that day." Behnke and his dad were just about to leave for Phoenix Sky Harbor to pick his mom up when they got the call.

"We turned on the TV, and sure enough, there's a plane and flames on the freeway, Behnke says. 

One hundred forty-eight passengers and six crew members were killed in the crash. Two people on the ground also died. The only survivor was a child on the plane. Reports say she was traveling with her mom, dad, and brother.

As for what caused the crash, an investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed it was a pilot error. The report claims the flight crew failed to use the taxi checklist, leading to the aircraft’s flaps and slats not being properly extended before takeoff. 

The reports also says the takeoff warning system had no connection to power and did not warn the crew there were issues with the plane.

Following the crash, Northwest Airlines never used flight number 255 again. Even after it merged with Delta, the number has still not been used.

All these years later, Schaffer-Smith doesn't know if this pain will ever go away. "You think that it would, but it doesn't," Schaffer-Smith says, holding back tears. "You just learn how to move forward." 

However, hearing these names reach every year brings a sense of comfort Schaffer-Smith says, "We still remember. Their spirit lives on."

Knowing those lost will not be forgotten.

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