On a cold and foggy afternoon in January, 1952, American Airlines Flight 6780 slammed into two houses in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the Mandel household with fire consuming the apartment, Florence Mandel faced a terrible choice: save her two-year-old daughter Linda whose clothes were aflame, or her seven-year-old daughter Donna who was trapped by a fallen beam. Urged by Donna to save the baby, Mrs. Mandel rushed Linda outside but then was restrained from re-entering the inferno. Donna died screaming for her Mommy to save her.
Life, of course, could never be the same. Not for Mrs. Mandel, who could never forget the last tortured cries of her daughter. Not for her husband, Albert, who suffered lifelong guilt for not being there when his family needed him. And certainly life was radically altered for little Linda who had second and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body and would undergo many painful surgeries throughout her childhood.
Born into this traumatized and grieving family, Judy Mandel was a “replacement child” for their beloved lost Donna. As Judy writes in her memoir The Replacement Child, growing up as a replacement child meant being loved, but also feeling separate from her family. It meant being kept at bay by her emotionally distant father who couldn’t express affection because of his terrible grief over Donna. It meant feeling guilty for being pretty and whole when Linda was scarred and disfigured. In her own way, Judy, too, was a victim of the tragic crash.