Pensacola hero who saved 55 people from plane crash has died
When National Airlines Flight 193 crash-landed in Escambia Bay on the night of May 8, 1978, the plane had 58 people on board.
Passengers and crew members hurried out of the sinking Boeing 727 into the dark water alongside leaking fuel. Three people drowned, but the other 55 were saved by the quick work of a Pensacola tugboat captain.
Glenn McDonald, then 41, steered his tugboat to the wreckage and fished survivors out of the water and onto the safety of a small barge towed behind his vessel.
Now, more than four decades later, Pensacola lost one of its all-time heroes when McDonald, 84, died March 22 of heart failure.
His wife, Janet McDonald, told the News Journal that a formal funeral service will not be held. Her husband’s wish was to be buried at sea.
“He always said that he knew he was supposed to be there that night,” she recalled. “He was where he was meant to be.”
Still, for the rest of his life, Glenn McDonald could never let go of the memory of the three lives he was unable to save from the dark water, his wife said.
HERO TO HIS FAMILY
Glenn McDonald was born on Dec. 7, 1936, at the old Sacred Heart Hospital on 12th Avenue in Pensacola. He met Janet for the first time when he was in eighth grade. She was a seventh grader, and he put a bug down the back of his future love’s shirt.
The young couple remained sweethearts through their high school years and continued to date as underclassmen in college. She attended Florida State University, and Glenn studied science at the University of Southern Mississippi. The long distance took its toll.
“We were still going together in college, but then, we broke up,” Janet recalled. “I married an Air Force pilot, and he married a beauty queen from Mississippi.”
Glenn had a daughter, Felecia Wynn, with his first wife, and Janet had two daughters with her first husband.
But within a decade of their first marriages, they both got divorces. By about 1963, they had both moved back to their hometown of Pensacola, where the former high school sweethearts reconnected.
They married in 1965, and Glenn legally adopted both of Janet’s daughters — Jennifer McDonald Cochran and Jeromee McDonald Beaudette — from her previous marriage.
“He was my own hero,” Beaudette said, before briefly pausing as the tears started to fall. “He was always there for us when we needed him. No questions asked.”
After Glenn and Janet married, he started teaching scuba diving lessons before embarking on his next venture. Then he bought a barge, a crane and a small tugboat and opened his own underwater construction company, which he named McDonald Marine and Contracting.
“The tugboat was named ‘Little Mac’ the tiniest tugboat in Pensacola Bay,” his wife said.
RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
The night of the plane crash, Glenn called home to tell Janet that he’d be working late. An important client called. Their need was urgent, and the job would require Glenn to transport his crane across the bay on his barge and to be ready to work at first light.
“He had to go to the L&N trestle next to the I-10 bridge, because it was damaged and the trains couldn’t run,” Janet recalled. “They asked him if he could please take the barge up to the job site, so they could be ready to work first thing in the morning.”
The crewmen who worked for Glenn had all gone home, except for his first mate on the tugboat, Bill Kenny, who agreed to help his boss with the nighttime job. The two men pushed off the dock in the tugboat and together motored out into a dense fog.
Guiding the boat by compass, Glenn went off course. It took quite some time to eventually emerge from the fog and finally regain his bearings.
Although Glenn was nowhere near where he was heading, he was where he needed to be that night.
“He just didn’t know why he was there,” his wife said, “until the plane crashed next to him.”
The Boeing 727 came down out of the clouds and crashed less than 100 yards from the tugboat.
In that moment, Glenn knew why he had emerged from the fog in that exact spot.
“It was just meant to be,” Janet said. “He said, ‘Now, I know why I am where I am. Now, I know why I came off-course.‘”
Glenn thought the plane might explode, and for the first few seconds after the airliner hit the water, he waited to hear a bang and see flames.
“Of course, it didn’t explode, and the minute it landed, they headed for it,” Janet said. “So by the time people started jumping out of the airplane, they were there.”
Glenn and his first mate rescued 55 of the 58 people who were aboard the airplane.
The May 10, 1978, issue of the News Journal quoted Glenn as saying, “My biggest concern was to pick up people without running over anyone.”
Recently, Janet, now 83, started to laugh when remembering one of husband’s more eccentric habits. He often kept a cigar in his mouth just to chew on, though he never lit it.
“When he pulled up in that boat, everybody went, “No, no, he’s got a cigar,’” she recalled.
“He went to throw it overboard, and they hollered even more, because there were about 3 inches of fuel on top of the water,” she said, laughing. “They were afraid that he was going to start a fire!”
Glenn’s daughter, Wynn, wrote an email to the News Journal recalling her own experience that night as she had sat in a car listening to the emergency channel on her family’s CB radio.
“While the situation may have been unusual, the rescue was not, as both my parents were always quick to help stranded boaters or swimmers or divers, always in poor weather conditions, and often with little regard for their own personal safety,” Wynn wrote.
“So really what happened that night was the culmination of a lifelong readiness to help. Which is how I remember my dad; easygoing on the outside, but as tough as they get when it came to doing the right thing.”
HAUNTED BY THOSE HE COULDN’T SAVE
After the sun came up, Glenn was given a key to the city of Pensacola in honor of his heroism.
In all, he received more than a dozen awards and certificates, including the prestigious Meritorious Service Medal for Heroic Actions from the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea Award from the United Seamen’s Service.
President Jimmy Carter wrote him a letter of thanks, and National Airlines offered him a large monetary reward, which he refused to take.
“But he said, ‘I’ll take a free plane ticket if you want to fly me to England,’” his wife recalled. “So we flew to England, courtesy of National Airlines.”
The accolades never went to Glenn’s head. In fact, when a reporter from Reader’s Digest requested an interview, he turned her down.
“That’s one of the things about my dad. He was very humble,” Cochran said. “He felt kind of uncomfortable about all of the attention.
“I talked to him recently about it, and he still would think about the three people he couldn’t save. It really bothered him. He was not saying, ‘Oh, look at me. Look how many people I saved,’” she continued. “He was still upset that he wasn’t able to save everyone.”