Chicago, IL Jumbo Jet Crashes On Take Off, May 1979
272 PERISH -- WORST U.S. AIR CRASH.
An American Airlines DC-10 jumbo jet bound for Los Angeles from Chicago crashed moments after takeoff Friday from O'Hare Airport, killing all 272 persons on board and perhaps two more on the ground in the worst air disaster in U.S. history.
The jetliner, Flight 191, was filled with Memorial Day holiday travelers and a number of publishers and three Playboy magazine editors enroute to a West Coast convention. It crashed into a field near Elmhurst Road and Touhy Avenue and exploded on impact just east of a mobile home park and only 500 yards from the huge Standard Oil Co. petroleum tank farm in Elk Grove Township.
The plane, scheduled for departure at 2:45 p.m., took off under cloudless skies and apparently lost its left engine upon takeoff, banking uncontrollably as it attempted to gain altitude, eyewitnesses said. The craft rolled over and crashed nose down into the field, bursting into a ball of flame and sending a wave of intense heat, fire and smoke shooting into the air.
An FAA spokesman said the plane reached an altitude of 500 to 600 feet before plummeting into a dive. The plane's landing gear was still down when it crashed.
The tremor was felt as far as a mile away. Debris and bodies from the wreckage were strewn a quarter-mile around the impact site where the jumbo jet virtually disintegrated.
Cook County Sheriff's Police spokeswoman BETSY BARSTEAD said two persons were believed to be killed in a nearby construction hut, but firefighters were not immediately able to extract the victims. Their identities were not known.
The crash is the worst aviation disaster in the nation's history, surpassing the crash eight months ago in San Diego when a PSA jetliner collided with a private plane, killing 151 persons.
Firefighters, police and emergency vehicles from Chicago and surrounding suburbs arrived on the scene and began evacuating residents of the Touhy Mobile Home park only yards from the burning wreckage. Three trailers caught fire after being hit by burning metal parts and several businesses operating near and in the field were demolished, including an airplane parts warehouse and a construction hut owned by Courtney-Velo Excavating Co., where two more bodies were found. One of the victims in the hut was believed to be an employee of the company.
Two other company employees were badly burned when fuel from the DC-10 showered onto the old airplane hangar where they were working. They are ANDREW S. BELLAVIA, 46, of 387 S. Jeffrey Ln., Wheeling, and RICHARD MASKERI, 28, of 1510 N. Valley Lake Dr., Schaumburg.
Another man in the building escaped without injury.
BELLAVIA, with burns over more than 50 percent of his body, was taken to the Loyola Medical Center burn unit in Maywood where he is in serious condition. MASKERI was admitted to Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village where he was listed in good condition.
"It could have been even worse," Elk Grove Village Fire Lt. R. L. HOHMAN said. "If that plane had hit those gasoline storage tanks, we would have had a fire that would have burned for three or four days and destroyed this whole area.
The powerful explosion ripped the jet apart and dismembered most of the victims. Crash investigators pushed hundreds of wooden stakes into the ground to mark the locations of arms, legs and torsos.
"It's one big mess," an Arlington Heights firefighter said. "It's very grim."
"The bodies are burned beyond recognition," Hoffman Estates firefighter ROBERT GORVETI said. "There's not one that's recognizable. They're broken up. I've seen burned bodies before, but nothing of this magnitude."
"It looks like a Vietnam battlefield after napalm," Hoffman Estates fire fighter DAVID BAIRD said.
Firefighters searching for bodies laid yellow body bags and wooden stakes beside the remains of the victims. "You can taste what you're doing back there," one firefighter said. "It stays in your mouth."
The bodies were being moved to a temporary morgue set up at an American Airlines hangar at O'Hare. A temporary communications post also was being set up at Elk Grove High School for relatives of victims.
Cardinal JOHN CODY and Chicago Mayor JANE BYRNE were on the scene. The archbishop said he administered a blessing over the remains.
"I said a prayer for all of them. It's a very tragic event. I offered a prayer we say for the dead and asked that the Lord have mercy on them." The cardinal said last rites of the Catholic Church were not administered because "they are not human forms."
Police quickly cordoned off the scene from the thousands of spectators who rushed to the crash. Some children reportedly sneaked through the police lines and ran off with pieces of the wreckage.
State trooper AL HAPACK said police would be on the crash scene for "at least the next three days" to guard the site.
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration were on the scene as well as 30 agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A 10-member unit called a Go-Team was dispatched by the NTSB in Washington to conduct the investigation, said EDWARD E. SLATTERY, a bureau spokesman. SLATTERY said the team should complete its on site work in 10 days to two weeks. The team is to be headed by ELWOOD DRIVER, vice chairman of the NTSB and a former airline pilot.
JOHN OTTO, FBI agent in charge of the Chicago office, said 30 agents were sent to the scene but added, "There is no evidence that this is a sabotage operation."
The plane's "black box" flight recorder of cockpit conversation was found "relatively intact," a spokesman said.
The plane's pilot was Capt. WALTER H. LUX from Tempe, Ariz. He was a native of Wisconsin who had been working for American Airlines since December 1950.
Police set up a command post at the Magee Chemical Co. across the street from the crash site to coordinate their operations.
"It's not even an airplane out there," one state trooper said. "There isn't even the fusilage."
Eyewitnesses said the three-engine plane trailed smoke from the left side before crashing.
"I heard the plane before I saw it," said PAILIE SPADAFINO, a resident of the mobile home park. "Iwas watering my lawn when I first saw it. After being in the Air Force, it reminded me of many crashes I've seen. I saw the plane start to roll and then it went on its back and when I see that -- a plane on its back -- its back is broken and it automatically goes down."