Tuesday, May 24, 2011
May 25 is a Tragic Anniversary for Chicago
Warning—there are plenty of graphic details in this story.
Chicago, IL—It was May 25, 1979 at 3:15 in the afternoon. Weather in the Windy City could not be nicer. We were just told to switch to short sleeves in a uniform directive.
I was on a one-man car mail delivery run and in the vicinity of West Touhy Ave near O’Hare Airport. I heard an officer come on my radio with emergency traffic saying that a DC-10 airplane was going down. There was genuine panic in that officer’s voice.
Back then, I did not know a DC10 from Piper Cub, just that it was an airplane. I felt warm air hit my left arm that was out my car window. I saw a mushroom shaped cloud appear nearby. I snapped on my lights and siren and raced about two blocks to the scene.
I did not know it but I was about to arrive at the largest airplane disaster to date in U.S history. The crash of American Airlines, flight #191 happened on takeoff from O’Hare to Los Angeles. A wing engine fell off, due to maintenance shortcut mechanics used to reattach the engine to the wing using a forklift. The plain rotated in the sky and landed upside down on a somewhat small open field located at 400 West Touhy Ave.
As I arrived firemen were spraying foam on a field. They were just across the street and wasted no time getting there. I began looking for the plane or at least a fuselage but could see none. The smoldering ground around me was apparently burned. This was as a result of a flash fire and about every 15 or 20 feet I could see human body trunks. It was nothing less than a war scene. There were smaller body parts such as arms and legs strewn around the area.
Digesting the magnitude of this disaster was surreal. Being one of the very first officers on the scene gave me the closest parking spot. My squad car would be trapped there for days by so many other emergency vehicles.
I looked for survivors and there were none anywhere. Ambulance crews arrived with IV bags in their hands. The look of utter horror was on nearly every face I saw.
The medical responders quickly learned they served no function but for a single Chicago cop.
The Chicago Police K-9 training center was right up against the crash site and the cop was standing nearby as the fully fueled plane came down in a huge ball of fire. He had singed hair and suffered a nasty sunburn-like injury to his face and arms. He appeared traumatized by the experience but thrilled to be alive.
Police and fire units appeared from jurisdictions throughout the area. The crash site was unincorporated Cook County and was the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Police. They could not handle this alone. There were in addition, Chicago, Schiller Park, Forest Preserve, Franklin Park, Rosemont and Illinois state police assisting.
Other than to protect the crash site with plain rope there was little to do (yellow crime scene tape had not yet been invented).
I quickly had to deal with a feisty WMAQ-TV reporter and crew walking on the sparsely protected site. It was veteran reporter Dick Kay and he would not budge from the scene until he saw me reaching for my handcuffs. Kay was first on the scene and wanted to earn another Emmy. Kay retreated but was close enough to report on the action. Kay was somewhat unhappy with me.
From my time of arrival until two hours had passed the police command structure formulated the plan to deal with this massive calamity. They did not teach plane crash 101 in the police academy. I was in for a learning experience. In reality the crash was treated like a massive traffic accident.
There was a junkyard and a trailer park that became part of the scene. I found a man’s left arm sticking out of a broken trailer window. He had an expensive blue pinstriped suit and a French cuff with a gold cufflink and a fine looking watch. It was just the arm with no body attached. The arm belonged to a young professional man for sure.
I could see the tail engine resting on what was the head of a naked woman. She has a great body with little injury other than the appearance of sunburn. I could not guess what happened to all her clothes. Her body could not be removed until some piece of heavy equipment could lift the engine.
Standing out in the field were two metal boxes just yards apart. They had bright diagonal stripes on them and we quickly determined they were the “black boxes” or the flight voice recorder and the flight data recorder.
The plan was formulated to pass out wooden stakes and body bags. Officers were given numbers to mark the stakes and corresponding bags. We were put into teams of three. One to write about what we were bagging, another to photograph the remains and the other for the labor connected with filling the bags. The whole process was, well organized and moved slow but smoothly.
Officials that today I call, tourists arrived. Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Terry Sullivan was there but I don’t have a clue why to this day. A U.S. postal inspector claiming to be looking for mail and the newly elected Chicago Mayor, Jane Byrne with her newly appointed police superintendent, Richard Brzeczek. Someone should have told the Mayor to wear sensible shoes for walking of the debris-laden field. Brzeczek was apparently trying to protect her from seeing me holding a young woman’s severed head with my hand by the hair as she passed by.
The sun had set and soon we were working by flashlights and lighting trucks brought to the scene. I found myself tangled in what seemed to be miles and miles of fine wire. I was in the area where the cockpit and it’s instrument panel had landed. Soon I saw a blue jacket sleeve with horizontal stripes near the cuffs. It was a pilot’s Hart, Schaffner& Marks brand jacket with the name “LUX” printed with a blue ballpoint pen above the inside pocket. It was the jacket of the captain, Walter Lux. His body and two more required some extra effort to remove the wire and instruments from their remains.
Later we had worked our way to the junkyard and located the charred remains of workers that sought refuge under tow trucks. There was one badly burned body trunk inside the bed of a tow truck.
Later I found my regular partner, that arrived. He couldn't normally deal very well with blood and gore. He handled his duties well in the mess but he was unable to deal with the inappropriate gallows humor some used to better deal with the unthinkable.
We had missed dinner and were starving. There was no way to take the car and get a bite to eat. But a Brown's Fried Chicken catering truck arrived after midnight with 2,000 pieces of crispy fried chicken.
We had been breathing burned jet fuel for hours and could barely taste the food. Of course there were the bad jokes about extra crispy chicken to go with the extra crispy victims.
There were no cell phones in those days and calling our spouses and girlfriends was impossible until Illinois Bell Telephone brought a wired trailer with pay phones to the scene. We made the calls and learned everyone figured out we were working the crash since it was all over the news.
I continued to bag human remains throughout the night. In one case I found a young mother holding her tender aged child tightly. I put both of them in the same bag because it was obvious they belonged together. I just used one stake, bag but used two numbers.
Finally after an exhausting night it was 4:30 AM and they told me to go home. They had arranged for officers to give us taxi service to our homes.
My uniform was destroyed along with my new Corfram duty shoes. The sharp aluminum debris cut through everything.
For the next couple of days I could only smell or taste jet fuel. It had taken over my airway and sinuses.
I had a trip to Phoenix, Arizona on American Airlines, planned in just two days. I took my trip and as we left the runway I looked down at the site and could still see my stranded squad car blocked in by so many other vehicles.
The investigations and litigation went on for decades after that crash. 273 souls were taken on this day 32 years ago.
UPDATE: May 15, 2019 Ive been asked to attend the 40th Anniversary Memorial Service planed for May 25, 2019. So many fellow first responders have since died. I think I should not miss this service.