Ghosts and Hauntings of the Crash of Flight 191

On a glorious day in late May, 1979, several hundred passen­gers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport waited aboard American Airlines Flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, for departure to Los Angeles. It was the Friday before Memorial Day and, despite being cramped on board a commercial flight on such a fine afternoon, the travelers were glad to have escaped the bustle of the world’s busiest airport on one of its busier days. The passengers and crew of Flight 191 were in the most capable of hands: those of Walter Lux, an expert DC-10 pilot with some 22,000 hours of flight time. The plane itself was no rookie either, having traveled 20,000 smooth, solid hours since its first trip. Everyone on board settled in for an easy ride, surely dreaming about the long weekend ahead.

At a minute before 3 p.m., the plane was cleared to begin its taxi to the runway’s holding point. Then, at 3:02 p.m., with everything go, the DC-10 started down the runway. All was smooth and usual until, just after takeoff, one of the engines lost power.

The events that followed are legendary in the annals of aviation history. A strange, vaporous substance began pouring from the fuel lines where the engine finally tore away from the wing, taking the pylon with it. Despite the loss, the wing soon stabilized and 191 continued its sure ascent. Briefly. Not ten seconds later, at a height of about 300 feet, the craft began to bank left, first slightly, then sharply. The nose of the plane fell, losing control. Flight 191 dove earthward.

The port wingtip hit ground in sync with a massive explosion that totally destroyed the plane. All 271 passengers and crew members were killed instantly, along with two residents of a nearby trailer park, re­sulting in the deadliest air disaster in American history.

Bewildered by the enormity of the tragedy, Chicagoans watched in disbelief as the news reports detailed the events of the afternoon. The nation joined Chicago in demanding answers from the airline, the air­field, and the National Transportation Safety Board: Why, when ordi­narily a plane could finish its flight with one missing engine, did the loss of Flight 191’s engine seal its doom? The question would initiate a grueling investigation into the flawed maintenance methods leading to the crash of that supposedly serviceable DC-10. But the answers were long in coming and, meanwhile, residents of the area surrounding O’Hare had puzzles of their own to solve.

In the hours after the crash, a number of houses in the far northwest corners of the city echoed with the sounds of knocking at their doors and windows. Residents who responded, among them a number of retirees and off-duty police and firefighters, found no sign of visitors. The mys­terious rappings occurred again and again. Neighbors returning home that evening experienced the same knockings. Over the next several weeks, sporadic reports of unseen callers continued to be turned in to the police.

At last, as the crash site was finally cleared and the final  strips of detective’s tape removed from its boundaries, peace came again to the Northwest Siders, who could only pray that their transient neighbors had found a better place to stay. They had. For the most part.

Since the crash of Flight 191 in the spring of ’79, a few lone souls have apparently lingered in the vicinity of their final hour, sending up wails and moans from the field where they met their end.

Dogs at the Chicago Polic K9 training facility next to the DesPlaines trailer park still  seem to sense something that their trainers don’t. The training facility is located at the field where the plane went down.

Before the cemeteries of Rest Haven and St. Johannes were moved to make way for the new runaway at O’Hare, mourners reported feeling touches on their shoulders and arms and whispers and sounds after the crash, as if the victims were drawn naturally their to a place of rest, despite the whoosh of departing flights overhead.

Inside the airport, at least one of 191’s passengers remains, forever retracing his final actions before boarding the doomed DC-10. For the past 20 years, at a pay phone near the terminal’s lounge, passengers at O’Hare have watched as a somber male figure wraps up a last-minute conversation, turns expectantly toward the ill-fated gate, takes a few determined steps . . . and vanishes.

Some local residents who walk their dogs along Higgins road pass the “Steaming Man”–a gentleman in business clothes who seems to have waves of steam emanating from his trench coat. He is agitated.  He walks quickly. He smells of jet fuel.

I spoke at a meeting of the Criterion Bar Sherlockian Society one evening years ago in the 1990s.  A couple was there who were forensic dentists.  I had spoken about the ghostlore of the crash. They came up to me afterwards. They were in school when the crash happened. They had been called to the scene as part of their studies. Because of the intense heat of the fuel, there were no remains for them to examine. Everything had been vaporized.

Many years later, I remembered their story when the hospitals prepared for the deluge of victims of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. And waited. And waited.

Like many of Chicago’s disaster’s we also have waited and waited for a memorial for the victims of this disaster. A memorial which never came. Summer after summer arrived and departed as we heard the planes depart and arrive, holding our breath and remembering.  Hearing and telling the story.

We are hearing those stories again today on the fiftieth anniversary as the ghosts still walk.

The only memorial ever built has been by schoolchildren. Everyone who can should go and visit it.  It is in a beautiful park not far from the crash site. It is called Lake Park in Des Plaines. This is a picture of the memorial. There is a brick for every one of the passengers and crew members who died.  You should be really proud of these kids.  There is a memorial service tomorrow for the 40th anniversary of the crash at 2:30 p.m. Here is a link to the information:

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