31 years ago, Northwest Flight 255 crashed seconds after takeoff

Image 1 of 9

31 years ago Thursday, Northwest Flight 255 took off from Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, bound for Phoenix. Seconds later, it crashed and exploded into a ball of flames. 

The plane was just clearing the runway at 8:46 p.m. when it tilted slightly. The left wing clipped a light pole, and the damaged airliner sheared the top off a rental car building.

The plane left a half-mile trail of carnage that included bodies, charred wreckage, magazines, and trays of food, all along Middlebelt Road that night.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the plane's crew failed to set the wing flaps properly for takeoff. The agency also said a cockpit warning system did not alert the crew to the problem.

There were 155 people on the plane, including 148 passengers and six crew members. Only one person survived: Cecelia Cichan, who was 4 at the time. She had multiple skin graft operations for severe burns and also suffered a skull fracture, fractured collarbone, and broken left leg in the crash. 

She went on to be raised by relatives, graduated college, got married and led a successful life. Her parents and brother were among the 154 on board the plane who died. Two more people in a car were killed near the crash site.

All told, 156 people were killed in the tragedy. 

A memorial for the plane in Romulus was put up to remember and honor the victims. Now, officials say some trees planted at the site are being replaced. The Associated Press reports that trees are being overtaken by healthier trees and have been cut out.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, which contracts out maintenance of the area, says trees that were removed or will be removed will be replaced.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.