Decades after American Airlines Flight 191 crashed moments after it took off from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it remains the deadliest accident in US history.
The DC-10 was bound for Los Angeles when it lost one of its engines on May 25, 1979, killing 273 people, including all 271 passengers and two others on the ground. More lives were lost in the plane accidents that occurred on September 11, but those accidents are classified as terrorist acts rather than accidents.
Reporter Mark Wilson covered the Chicago incident for the Associated Press. In the first person account, published about a week later, he described burning debris and seeing policemen vomiting, priests dressed from touching extremely hot bodies and first body bags being loaded onto trucks to take to the airport’s makeshift mortuary.
“More body bags were used than more corpses,” Wilson wrote, adding that he had dreamed of the three nights after the accident that he was on the plane.
The Associated Press is reprinting Wilson’s original report to mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster.
An American Airlines wide-body plane carrying 270 passengers crashed over the weekend on Memorial Day, crashed into the front of the plane and crashed into flames yesterday shortly after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport. Authorities said all of those on board were killed in the worst air disaster in US history.
Seconds before a DC-10 bound for Los Angeles crashed, one of its three engines fell and landed on the runway in O’Hare, said Richard Albrecht, Chicago’s fire commissioner. He said the plane hit the nose of the plane first, about a half-mile from the runway at an abandoned airport in the town of Elk Grove.
There are no survivors, said Alfano, the police chief of the nearby Des Plaines area.
Rescue workers walked through smoking rubble, marking the bodies with metal pegs 4 feet high topped with red, yellow and black streaks. The yellow banners indicated two bodies, the red, the flesh, and the black, five. About 50 servings are specified.
Several people were injured on the ground by the rubble, at least two of them so serious that it required hospital treatment.
As darkness fell, floodlights were brought to the crash site. By 11 pm, federal investigator Douglas Dreyfus said that 250 bodies had been removed from the wreck. He said the others would not be turned away before day came.
“Some are still buried under the rubble, and we did not want to disturb the wreckage,” Dreyfus said.
Neil Callahan, a public affairs officer with the Chicago Federal Aviation Administration, said the recording of conversations between the pilot and the control tower indicated the tower was aware of a problem at takeoff.
“The only thing we know for sure is that he didn’t have time to speak to The Watchtower,” Callahan said.
Asked by reporters whether the plane should be able to fly with one engine lost, Callahan said:
“Yes, it should fly. There is no doubt about that, but that is one thing that will be determined in a further investigation.”
He added, “It’s unbelievable but never before of a motor fall.”
Elwood T. Driver, one of the many National Transportation Safety Board investigators dispatched from Washington, said, “You can bet the lowest dollar you’ll get on the engine that’s dropped.”
“We heard a loud roar. We went to the door and saw this plane flipping in the air,” said Roy Mueller, director of the Mobile Home Oasis Park near the disaster site.
“One of my supervisors just came back from the square and said, ‘There are corpses scattered everywhere.
Chicago area resident John Wayne was on Air Ozark that landed on another runway at the time of the take-off of US Flight 191.
The plane was in the air, and the young man in front of me said, “Look at it.” I looked up and said, “The engine has fallen.” We saw the plane as far as we could. He went on a fairly flat training course and gained a little bit of height and then slipped left, the wing descended and was just one nugget of flame in one go. “
Robert Anderson was driving nearby when the plane crashed into an abandoned airport in the town of Elk Grove, northwest of Chicago.
He said the plane was “almost vertical and started screaming because I knew it wouldn’t get out.”
“It continued almost upside down. As it affected, the flames erupted to where I thought my face would sing,” Anderson said. “When I looked back, it looked like an atomic bomb exploded.”
Other eyewitnesses said that the left engine broke free, then the plane veered to the left and trembled for a few seconds and hit the ground, hitting its nose and left wing head around the same time.
Witnesses also said the plane appeared to be traveling at an unusually slow speed as a plane was taking off.
Hospitals in the area were alerted to receive survivors, but the alert was quickly canceled.
A makeshift morgue has been set up at the American Airlines hangar in O’Hare. Chicago Police have sent 10 police trucks to help remove the bodies that had been wrapped in blue plastic bags.
Deputy Police Chief Charles Pape asked rescuers to “put as many in (the trucks) as possible, but don’t overcrowd them. Treat them like your own family.”
Relatives of the victims were asked to gather in the airport’s VIP lounge.
The highways in the area were crowded with rush-hour motorists and hundreds of people gathered in the horrific scene, including residents of a nearby trailer park, some of whom were lightly injured by debris.
O’Hare, the world’s busiest airport, was closed briefly, disrupting heavy traffic during the holidays, but later some runways reopened. Departing flights were delayed an hour or more.
After the accident that occurred at 3:03 pm. Under a clear but stormy sky, a United Airlines employee reported seeing the flames from eight miles away.
American Airlines said the plane was bound non-stop to Los Angeles. She was scheduled to leave Chicago at 2:45 pm. CDT and arrive in Los Angeles at 4:42 PM. PDT.
The same plane landed in O’Hare at 1:05 pm. CDT, with Flight 630 from Phoenix, Arizona.
US officials in Chicago said their records showed 270 people on board: 255 passengers and 15 crew members. Among the crew members were the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer, 10 flight attendants and two flight attendants “dead” or traveling from a completed mission to another starting point.
Andrew Belavia, 46, from Welling and Richard Maker, 28, from Schaumburg, was transferred alive from the scene of the accident to the Alexian Brothers Hospital in the village of Elk Grove. A spokeswoman there said the two were working in the area on the ground when the accident occurred. Belavia was later transferred to the burn unit of another hospital.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane crashed at an abandoned airport in Elk Grove, northwest of Chicago. The Washington Federal Aviation Administration said the plane was taking off about half a mile from the runway end at the north end of the airport.
A Playboy spokesperson said that among the passengers was the flight’s managing editor Sheldon Wax. His wife, novelist Judith Wax; Mary Tierney Sheridan, Managing Director, International Publishing Division, Playboy Enterprise; Victoria Haider, Fantasy Editor for Playboy.
Mike Murphy, the magazine’s vice president, described Wax as “the guy who directs the magazine.” Miss Wax has just published a book on middle age, entitled Beginning in the East. Murphy said Playboy was committed to the American Booksellers Association agreement.
The pilot was identified by American as Captain Walter H. Lux of Phoenix, Arizona, co-pilot James R. Dillard of Chicago, and flight engineer Fred Udovich of Chicago.