RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dallas and Jean Ratcliff, a North Carolina couple whose 2004 dream vacation ended disastrously with a Big Island plane crash, have made a return visit to Hawaii. They enjoyed the view yesterday from their room at the Outrigger Waikiki, the same room they had when they were here last time.
Pair returns to Hawaii after horrific 2004 plane crash
Jean Ratcliff, 65, is cracking jokes about her post-accident looks. "I look much younger," she says. "I'm modest, too."
Actually, part of her lip was destroyed when the air tour plane she and her husband were in crashed near Milolii, South Kona, on April 18, 2004. A medical artist tattooed her lip and hairless eyebrows so they would look normal.
Together, Catherine Jean and Dallas Ratcliff, sometimes of Portsmouth, Ohio, sometimes of their daughter's home in Raleigh, N.C., owe nearly $2 million in medical bills for treatment of injuries suffered in the crash, mostly burns.
Dallas, 64, had 115 skin grafts. Jean, speaking with a raspy voice caused by fire damage to her throat, had four throat surgeries. They include two tracheotomies or surgical holes in her throat, which she jauntily refers to as "trakes."
The couple calmly told their story yesterday from their room at a Waikiki hotel. They had returned to Hawaii, only their second visit here, bringing their daughters, Mary Atwood and Jacqui Murphy, as a reward for the intensive care the two younger women gave them during seven months of recovery.
Both daughters are registered nurses.
When the Ratcliffs entered the Piper Warrior airplane flown by Island Hoppers in Kona in 2004, Jean had a moment of misgiving, asking the owner of the company about the young female pilot.
"She looks so young," Jean said, noting that the owner responded, "She's the most experienced pilot I have."
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that pilot Jelica Matic had 1,254 hours' flying time but only 50 hours in that type of plane. She had worked for Island Hoppers only 11 days.
As the plane headed south above Kona, it passed through cloud after cloud. Jean thought, "We can't see anything. We might as well go back."
Then they came out of a cloud and saw ground in front of them. Jean told the NTSB that Matic said something like, "I'm too low. It won't climb," followed by, "Oh my God, we're going to hit. I'm so sorry."
As the plane hit rock, it burst into flames. "The fire started under my seat," Dallas said.
Jean added, "I was sitting behind him and literally watched him burn."
Dallas could not work the seat belt. He had to wait until the fire burned through the belt while it also burned into his body.
The plane had only one door. Jean and Matic could not get out until he got out.
"I have met my maker," Dallas said. He said he found himself in a room full of light with a figure he knew to be Jesus. "What do you want to do, go back or stay here?" Jesus asked, he said. Dallas wanted to go back to life, feeling he had more work on earth.
Matic survived but was also burned in the accident.
Jean said she was glad the accident happened to her instead of the family with a little girl and boy who got off the plane just before she and Dallas got on. "Those children would never have made it," she said.
Island Hoppers did not have enough money to make a lawsuit worthwhile. The Ratcliffs got a "little settlement" from the company.
"We're Christian people," she said. "We hold no grudges."
As cheerful as she seems, the accident still has a hold on her. "I relive it daily," she said.
She wanted to thank her daughters with a trip to Hawaii. "One day I'll take you back," she promised.
But when the flight to Hawaii arrived, "I hated getting on the plane," she said. Arriving April 5, they spent a week on Kauai, a week on Maui, a week on Oahu.
They visited Dr. Robert Schulz, who cared for them for six weeks at Straub Clinic & Hospital.
But they took no air tours. "We kept our feet on the ground," Jean said.
And they made no visit to the Big Island.
"It was a beautiful island," Dallas said. But, he added, "It didn't seem like there was any reason to go back."