Thirty-five years ago Sunday, in what remains the worst airline crash on U.S. soil, more than 270 people were killed near O’Hare International Airport when American Airlines Flight 191 lost its left engine on takeoff, rolled sickeningly and crashed near a trailer park.
Unlike the continued mystery surrounding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the cause of the disaster on that sunny Friday afternoon was known rather quickly. A report less than three months later detailed the “10-billion-to-1 long shot” that caused the plane to fall from the sky. An improperly repaired engine mount gave way under the 40,000 pounds of pressure, and compounding the problem, it smashed the forward edge of the wing, severing the hydraulic lines controlling that wing.
In addition to the horrific loss of life, the crash is indelibly inked on the public memory because the accident was captured on film. A 24-year-old pilot from Ontario, Canada, was pacing the terminal with camera at hand and was taking a photo of another plane when he noticed Flight 191 was in trouble.
“I saw the engine come tumbling through the air — tumbling and tumbling to the ground,” Michael Laughlin told the Tribune, which bought his photographs — and camera — for $500 after winning an impromptu bidding war against other media outlets.
“Just after the engine was blown off was when I made the first picture,” he said. “I took the second picture after the aircraft started banking very sharply to the left.
“I just stood there stunned, wondering to myself, ‘Did this really happen?'”
For the first responders, the grim reality was unavoidable. “As soon as it went down, it went up in flame, swish, just like napalm,” Chicago police Officer Michael Delany told the Tribune. The crash site was huge and very little was identifiable. A priest at the scene tried to administer last rites but couldn’t actually touch anything — it was all too hot. Soon numbered markers and yellow body bags dotted the area, revealing the extent of the human toll.
It could have been worse. All 271 aboard the plane were killed, and two people on the ground also died, but the plane barely missed the Touhy Mobile Home Park. It plowed into an open field that had been the old Ravenswood Airport, and the explosion sent burning debris raining down on residents. Abe Marmel, 75, was gardening.
“I heard a loud explosion,” he told a Tribune reporter. “By the time I looked up, there was a rain of fire falling down on me.” He ran into his nearby office to find his wife, Shirley, standing in a burning room, too scared and shocked to move. He pulled her to safety.
“We moved as fast as we could,” he said. “The smoke was so black we couldn’t see. … We just kept moving until we got out of the smoke.”
Many of the passengers headed to Los Angeles that day were going for the American Booksellers Association convention. Twenty-one of the victims, including three editors from Playboy magazine led by managing editor Sheldon Wax, worked in the publishing business in Chicago. Probably the most widely known victim, the Tribune reported, was Wax’s wife, Judith, 47, a best-selling author, essayist and humorist.
The destruction was overwhelming even for the experts. When Federal Aviation Administration chief Langhorne Bond arrived at the scene, he was stunned.
“It’s hard to tell there was a DC-10 here. I’m sure the pieces add up to one, but …” and his voice trailed off.
Joining him was Elwood “Woody” Driver, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a Tuskegee airman during World War II. After surveying the wreckage, he said, “Forty years. This is the worst one I’ve ever seen.”