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31 years later, passenger still reckons with survival from Flight 232

Man who survived Flight 232 crash returns to Sioux City for first time

Yisroel Brownstein walks July 21 through the memorial to the crash of United Flight 232 with Rabbi Memual Katzman (left)
Yisroel Brownstein walks July 21 through the memorial to the crash of United Flight 232 with Rabbi Memual Katzman (left). At 9 years old, Brownstein was onboard when the plane crashed in 1989, and this was his first time returning to Sioux City. (Jesse Brothers/Sioux City Journal)

SIOUX CITY — On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, Yisroel Brownstein was overcome with emotion walking through a memorial set up to commemorate the legacy of United Airlines Flight 232, a Denver-to-Chicago flight that crash landed outside Sioux City in 1989.

The 40-year-old Chicago-based clinical psychologist admitted his visit to the site was a last-minute decision, conceived over the course of a few days.

Brownstein needed to see the site for his own mental well-being. Plus he wanted to return to the community that changed the course of his life forever.

Of the 296 people on board the ill-fated Flight 232 when it crashed 31 years ago this month, 112 passengers died and 184 survived.

Only 9 years old at the time, Brownstein was one of the survivors.

“People thought I had returned to Sioux City before now and I let them assume that,” he explained. “This is the first time I’ve been back in 31 years.”

Then a fourth grader living in Chicago, Brownstein was traveling alone on Flight 232. The son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a “hippie mom,” he was heading back home after visiting a friend in Denver when the DC-10 crashed in a farm field, a few miles south of Sioux City.

“Where were your parents? Why were you on that flight all alone?” Brownstein said with shrug. “That’s what people asked me after the fact. Instead, I thank God my mom and dad weren’t with me because they wouldn’t have survived. I could’ve lost my entire family.”

‘Traveller’s prayer’

Instead, he befriended a fellow passenger named Richard Howard Sudlow.

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Brownstein asked Sudlow if he knew the words for John Renbourn’s folk song “Traveller’s Prayer.” The businessman, who was seated next to Brownstein, said he did.

During the flight, Sudlow mentioned a daughter, who was a few years younger than Brownstein.

“Mr. Sudlow was looking forward to seeing his daughter,” Brownstein said, tearing up at the memory. “He couldn’t wait to get home.”

It was then that Flight 232 began experiencing engine failure.

“Even though the pilots and stewardesses were trying to calm our nerves,” Brownstein said, “we knew the plane had to land and it was going to be rough.”

In the moments before the crash landing, Sudlow asked Brownstein to recite the “Traveller’s Prayer.” Then, he sacrificed his own life by shielding the 9-year-old from the brunt of the impact.

Brownstein remembered being buried in the rubble of the plane, screaming and crying in agonizing pain. But he was alive, in large part due to the kindness of a complete stranger.

Suffering from multiple injuries, Brownstein spent the next few months in a Sioux City hospital.

This was where he and his family befriended the Omaha-based Rabbi M. Mendel Katzman, executive director from One Chabab, an organization dedicated to Judaism.

“When my parents came to Sioux City, Rabbi Katzman literally served my dad kosher food from an RV parked in the hospital’s parking lot,” Brownstein recalled, laughing.

While Katzman attended to Brownstein’s spiritual needs, doctors in Sioux City attended to his medical ones. The 9-year-old’s injuries were so extensive, he was subsequently transferred to hospitals in both Denver and Chicago.

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“I can’t even remember how long I was in the hospital,” he said. “Isn’t that crazy?”

While Brownstein’s physical injuries healed, his sense of survivor’s guilt grew more toxic.

Even a meeting with the daughter of Richard Sudlow, the man who saved his life, did nothing to lessen Brownstein’s internal pain.

“I told her I killed her dad but she wouldn’t listen to me,” Brownstein explained. “She wouldn’t have any of it. She said, if confronted by a life-or-death predicament, I would’ve saved the life of another person.”

Years of turmoil

However, he spent many years in turmoil.

Brownstein’s relationship with his dad, whom he called charismatic but difficult, and his mom, whom he called a mama lion who would do anything for her cubs, suffered as he struggled with opioid and, then, methadone addiction.

Now sober, he works as a therapist and mentor to young people dealing with emotional issues.

Yet Brownstein still suffers from depression as well as the guilt that he associates with Flight 232.

Those were the thoughts he felt when visiting the Flight 232 Memorial as well as the permanent Flight 232 exhibit at the Mid-America Museum of Aviation & Transportation.

Before coming to Sioux City, Brownstein contacted Rabbi Katzman, who had remained a family friend for the past three decades.

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“Rabbi has seen me in good times and bad times,” Brownstein said. “I wanted to share this experience with him.”

“I tell Yisroel that God never gives us more than we can handle,” Katzman said. “That’s something we all need to remember.”

Coming back to Sioux City is one way that Brownstein is coming to terms with the past.

He remembers the community with a fondness and admiration that provided him with relief.

“I am so grateful for Siouxland and all of its citizens,” Brownstein said. “It’s a wonderful place.”

It has been 31 years since a plane crash forever changed Brownstein’s life. He experienced physical hardships that, for the most part, have healed.

But what about the emotional hardships?

There were tears in Brownstein’s eyes at the Flight 232 Memorial.

Maybe, he is struggling to understand the past.

Or, maybe, Brownstein is finally ready to heal himself.

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