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Litigation Journal

Fall 2021: Discovering

A Love Story

Kenneth P Nolan


  • At our first meeting, I feared becoming emotional at the sight of my client’s disfiguring burns.
  • Matt and Amy Warmerdam have quietly and surely taught us that life, with all its pain and disappointment, is joyous and precious.
  • Given the facts and the ideal plaintiffs, the insurer made sure the case settled.
  • But nothing could change Matt and Amy, who knew what was important in life—family, friends, work, fun.
A Love Story
den-belitsky via Getty Images

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I love weddings—the dazzling bride, the beaming groom, the whispered vows, the awkward first dance, even the corny cutting of the cake. After a few cocktails, I’m always on the dance floor, throwing up my hands, screaming “Shout!” For this is the one day that love is pure, timeless, the one day that this devoted couple is certain that their love will not only endure but become stronger, deeper, and more fulfilling. I never tell them the truth.

“I just want to fall in love,” my daughter’s first-year college roommate said with longing. We all do, for there’s no greater emotion, no better feeling. Yet, love is challenging for it changes, dissipates, even disappears. This is confirmed by Professor Laurie Santos of Yale. In her wildly popular course on what makes people happy, The Science of Well-Being, she posits that marrying your soulmate will make you happy for only two years or so. Gradually, but certainly, you’ll return to your old miserable self. This has happened to everyone I know, except Matt Warmerdam.

“Amy, I love you,” Matt yelled as his Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 crashed during an emergency landing in a hayfield near Carrollton, Georgia, on August 21, 1995. These were the final words on the cockpit voice recorder before the Embraer Brasilia was destroyed by ground impact and a post-crash inferno. With the left engine destroyed—“Engine’s exploded. It’s just hanging out there”—and unable to maintain altitude, Captain Ed Gannaway, age 45, and First Officer Matthew Warmerdam, 28, fought to keep the plane aloft until an airport could be reached. “I can’t hold this thing,” the captain said. “Help me hold it.”

After more than nine minutes, tragically, the plane, losing altitude and speed, clipped the tops of trees and crashed. Because the pilots’ skill and determination avoided power lines and houses, all 26 passengers and 3 crew survived the impact. A minute later, however, fire started from the hundreds of gallons of fuel that spilled amid the wreckage.

Trapped in the cockpit, Matt was determined to escape. Yet, behind his seat an oxygen tank leaked, strengthening the fire that roared toward him. Despite a dislocated shoulder, Matt chopped at the thick cockpit glass with a small axe but could open only a four-inch hole. “You’re not going to let me die, are you?” he yelled at a passenger who grabbed the axe and unsuccessfully tried to enlarge the hole.

Seven minutes after the crash, the fire department arrived. They stuck a hose through the hole in the glass to extinguish the fire burning in the cockpit. “Tell my wife, Amy, I love her,” Matt said to Steve Chadwick, the first responder. “No, sir,” he replied, “you tell her yourself.” Steve then pulled a horribly burned Matt to safety. In the ambulance, Matt consoled the paramedic who was distraught because he thought Matt would die from his severe burns. The paramedic undressed Matt to cool him off and pinned his badge to his underwear so Matt could be identified later.

In the chaos, passengers had to run through fire to escape the wreckage. Clothes were ignited; flesh burned. Flight Attendant Robin Fech’s calm demeanor in the air and her heroism on the ground—despite injuries—saved lives. Yet, the crash resulted in the deaths of Captain Gannaway and four passengers. Three more died of injuries in the next 30 days. A ninth passenger died four months later from the same cause—thermal burns and smoke inhalation. Another died of a heart attack eight weeks later. Matt Warmerdam survived.

I was nervous and scared as I traveled to Chattanooga’s Erlanger Hospital to meet Matt and Amy. Not because I didn’t know what to do—our firm specializes in aviation accident litigation—but because I feared becoming emotional at the sight of his disfiguring burns, which were over more than 40 percent of his body. With my partner Gerry Lear, a former Marine helicopter pilot who fought in Vietnam, we entered the burn unit where we would meet a courageous, resilient, and fun couple. A couple whose love and devotion has endured 50 surgeries, pain, suffering, rehabilitation, and upheaval that would have tested anyone. Instead, Matt and Amy’s dedication to each other survived, even thrived. Their love is an ideal that I wish I had, that I wish everyone had. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they did it.

We sat and talked with Matt and Amy and tried to explain the legal process—where the action would be filed, how long it would take, the usual stuff. But I couldn’t stop thinking of the fire, the horrible pain, and their bleak future. Yeah, we can get them some money, but. . . . I also was silently happy that, unlike so many in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I didn’t join New York City’s Fire Department. I imagined the anguish of neighborhood guys like the FDNY’s John Devaney and Billy O’Connor, who had already died so young fighting fires, trying to save others. Only to be repeated again on 9/11.

Matt and Amy were an ideal couple. Matt was tall, handsome, with a bright, infectious smile, while Amy was smart, determined, and beautiful. Her intelligence obvious, she asked insightful, pertinent questions. Her face was calm, confident, not a hint of self-pity or weakness. As in many such interviews, I had no idea if we connected, but I left the meeting impressed, a touch hopeful that—maybe, just maybe—if any couple could overcome these horrific obstacles, it would be the Warmerdams.

I’m certain we talked again by phone, and I know we returned a few more times to the hospital—where Matt spent 100 days in the burn unit—before we were retained. Even with my always half-empty outlook on life, I began to realize that Matt’s upbeat personality with Amy’s unwavering resolve, along with their devotion to each other, made them special. Instead of avoiding mention of his disabilities, Matt embraced the magnitude of his injuries. Many who suffer such a fate prefer not to dwell on their struggles, their future. Not Matt. He accepted the challenge with his typical irreverence and wit. Every August 21st, for example, he always celebrates his “Crashiversary,” for he is “so grateful to still be around annoying all of you.”

About a half hour into the flight scheduled from Atlanta to Gulfport, Matt heard a loud thud like a baseball bat hitting an aluminum can. He detailed how he declared an emergency—“We’ve had an engine failure”—how he and Ed Gannaway fought to control the plane, how they couldn’t make it to an airport, and how they found a field to land. He was distraught that Captain Gannaway died at the scene, praised the first responders, and told me he wanted to fly again. “Oh, sure, you can do it,” I must have responded, believing not a syllable. Absurd, I thought, delusional. Wants to fly again? From a guy who lost 70 pounds, whose left hand and ear were disfigured, who was in critical condition for months, and who was facing a lifetime of surgeries and rehabilitation. Ridiculous. Yet, in 2002, Matt again entered the cockpit to pilot for Atlanta Southeast Airlines. He continued to fly for 15 more years. Can you imagine?

In between trips to Chattanooga, we did the legal and factual research, which revealed that a blade on the propeller fractured in flight, resulting in distortion of the left engine. The fracture was caused by a fatigue crack from multiple corrosion pits, which were not discovered by its manufacturer, Hamilton Standard. Two previous failures of the same type of propeller had occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board report, adopted November 26, 1996, stated that the “probable cause of this accident was the in-flight fatigue fracture and separation of a propeller blade. . . . The fracture was caused by a fatigue crack from multiple corrosion pits that were not discovered by Hamilton Standard because of inadequate and ineffective corporate inspection and repair techniques, training, documentation, and communications.”

All the while, Matt and Amy worked diligently through rehab, skin grafts, and other procedures too numerous to contemplate. And did all without complaint, with a wicked sense of humor, along with their golden retriever Runway. They returned to their home in California to continue the life they had planned.

After handling scores of such cases, I know that relationships with spouses, family are always tested. Some leave, if not physically, then emotionally. Matt and Amy must have had doubts, thoughts of life without another doctor’s visit. That, of course, would have been my reaction. Thankfully, they never showed reservation or weakness. And they were blessed with a beautiful daughter, Ashley, now 10. Given the facts and the ideal plaintiffs, the insurer made sure the case settled. Yet, nothing could change Matt and Amy, who knew what was important in life—family, friends, work, fun.

It has now been more than 25 years since that tragic day, a day of sorrow and pain, a day that would have defeated most. Instead, Matt and Amy Warmerdam have quietly and surely taught us that life, with all its pain and disappointment, is joyous and precious. I was very fortunate to have met Matt and Amy, to have represented them, to call them friends. They taught me the importance of love and devotion, showed me courage and perseverance. On my desk is a memento they gave me, a photo of an inspiring couple, standing in front of an ASA Embraer Brasilia, hands touching a blade of the propeller, just like the one that fractured, with the words: “Ken—Nice Prop.”