GHOSTS OF FLIGHT 191
LINGERING SPIRITS OF A CHICAGO DISASTER
On May 25, 1979, one of the most horrifying disasters in Chicago and American history took place at O’Hare International Airport when American Airlines Flight 191 literally fell from the sky, killing all of the 271 passengers and crew on board. The flight was meant to be a non-stop journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, but it never left the Windy City – and it left an eerie haunting behind.
It was a beautiful holiday weekend in Chicago and the sunny skies gave no indication of the horror that was about to take place. The passengers of Flight 191, including a number of Chicago literary figures bound for Los Angeles and the annual American Booksellers Association conference, mixed with the throngs of people at O’Hare airport. They boarded the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 just before 3:00 p.m. The DC-10 was a top-of-the-line aircraft and this particular model had logged more than 20,000 trouble-free hours since it left the assembly line. The crew was top-notch as well, including Captain Walter Lux, an experienced pilot who had been flying DC-10s since their introduction into service eight years before, and First Officer James Dillard, and Flight Engineer Alfred Udovich, who had nearly 25,000 flight hours between them.
At 2:59 p.m., the plane was cleared to begin its taxi onto the runway and then, at 3:02 p.m., Flight 191 started down the runway. All went smoothly until the aircraft reached a point about 6,000 feet down the runway. The tower controller saw parts of the port engine pylon falling away from the aircraft and a “white vapor” coming from the area. A moment later, the plane pitched into rotation and lifted off. As it did so, the entire engine and pylon tore loose from their mounting, flipped up and over the wing, and crashed down onto the runway. Immediately, the tower controller tried to raise the plane on the radio: “American 191, do you want to come back? If so, what runway do you want?”
There was no reply from the aircraft but it proceeded to climb normally, only dipping the left wing for a moment. It quickly stabilized and the plane continued its descent. About 10 seconds later, at a height of around 300 feet, the aircraft began to bank to the left, first slightly, then sharply. The nose of the plane dipped and as the aircraft began to lose height, the bank to left increased until the wings were past vertical --- then fell to the earth.
The left wingtip hit the ground first and the sound of tearing metal was followed by a massive explosion. The rushing fireball swept across the field, traveling about a half-mile northwest of O’Hare and roared into an abandoned hangar on the site of the old Ravenswood Airport on Touhy Avenue, just east of a mobile home park. The burning plane crossed mostly open ground, narrowly missing some fuel storage tanks on Elmhurst Road and the crowded I-90 Expressway. Two people on the ground were killed and several mobile homes were damaged, but the entire crew and all of the passengers on the place were killed instantly.
The disaster stunned the entire country, leading to scores of questions about the DC-10 aircraft and how the loss of only one engine had sealed the fate of Flight 191. The findings of a long and grueling investigation by the NTSB were released on December 21, 1979. It attributed the cause of the crash to an engine pylon that had been damaged at an American Airlines maintenance facility in March 1979. The engine had needed some routine maintenance and to save time and costs, American Airlines, without the approval of McDonnell Douglas, had instructed their mechanics to remove the engine and pylon as a single unit. A large forklift was used to support the engine while it was being detached from the wing. This procedure was extremely difficult to execute successfully, because the engine assembly had to be held perfectly straight while it was being removed. This was almost impossible to do without causing a crack. After the accident, cracks were found in the bulkheads of many other DC-10s.
The fracture in the plane used for Flight 191 went unnoticed for weeks, getting worse with each flight. During Flight 191's takeoff, enough force was generated to finally cause the pylon to fail. At the point of rotation, the engine detached and was flipped over the top of the wing. A tiny crack had caused the flight to end in disaster.
A number of ghost stories followed in the wake of the crash. According to Des Plaines police officers, motorists began reporting odd sights within a few months of the crash. They called in about seeing odd, bobbing white lights in the field where the aircraft had gone down. First thought to be flashlights carried by ghoulish souvenir hunters, officers responded to the reports, only to find the field was silent and deserted. No one was ever found, despite patrols arriving on the scene almost moments after receiving a report.
More unnerving, though, were the accounts that came from the residents of the nearby mobile home park, which was adjacent to the crash site. Many of these reports came within hours of the crash, when residents claimed to hear knocking and rapping sounds at their doors and windows. Those who responded, including a number of retired and off-duty police and firefighters, opened their doors to find no one was there. Dogs in the trailer park would bark endlessly at the empty field where the plane had gone down. Their owners could find no reason for their erratic behavior. This continued for weeks and months and even escalated to the point that doorknobs were being turned and rattled, footsteps were heard approaching the trailers, clanging on the metal stairs, and on some occasions, actual figures were confronted. According to some reports, a few residents opened their doors to find a worried figure who stated that he “had to get his luggage” or “had to make a connection” standing on their porch. The figure then turned and vanished into the darkness.
The tragedy, and the strange events that followed, caused many of the residents to move out of the park but when new arrivals took their place, they too began to report the weird happenings. One sighting was described by a man out walking his dog one night near the area where Flight 191 went down. He was approached by a young man who explained that he needed to make an emergency telephone call. The man with the dog looked at this person curiously for he seemed to reek of gasoline and also appeared to smoldering. At first, he just assumed the man had been running on this chilly night and steam was coming from his clothing, but when he turned away to point out a nearby phone and then turned back again --- the man had vanished. The man with the dog had heard stories from other local residents about moans and weird cries emanating from the 1979 crash site, but he never believed them until now. He was now convinced that he had encountered one of the restless passengers from Flight 191 for himself.