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Closer Look with Mark Suppelsa

Flight 191 Remembered

Mark Suppelsa, Reporter
Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The crash of American Airlines Flight 191 remains America's deadliest aviation accident. Twenty-five years later, we take a unique look back at this dark day in Chicago history.

The DC-10 lost more than an engine. The cockpit also lost vital controls, something one pilot compared to losing your steering wheel while driving 60 miles per hour. Many Chicagoans remember seeing the mountain of smoke from miles away. Tonight, we hear from the rescuers who got there first and could barely see through that smoke. Their stories in my Closer Look.

"It was, I remember distinctly, 3:15," says retired Chicago Police Sgt. Ken Burger. "I heard an airplane and I thought, 'Boy that airplane sounds kind of low.' Then it went 'rrrrr-pow!,' like backfire. And I thought, 'Oh man, that sounds like a plane in trouble.'"

"My partner was on the phone, he was kinda looking out the window. All of a sudden, he said, 'Holy cow!' And here was this big black column of smoke rising in the sky," recalls Gary Jensen.

It was his first year as Elk Grove Township fire chief. And on this, the 25th anniversary of the crash of American Flight 191, he's still the fire chief.

"People always ask me about it," he says. "And every time I drive by there, I think about it."

"You're cutting through the smoke in an attempt to rescue and there was nothing to rescue?" I ask Burger.

"Right. Right," he answers. "It was just ground litter. Pieces of shredded plane."

Burger may have been the first to reach the crash site.

"And I ran through the smoke and the fire," he recalls. "I said, 'Where the hell is the plane?!'"

"I remember seeing, I think, thirteen ambulances there," recalls Father Richard Homa. "I said to the pastor, 'This is not good. None of those ambulances are leaving.'"

Homa heard the explosion from his nearby church and raced over with another priest.

"I was blessing the body of a person and a fireman came by and said, 'Father, get out of there!' and I looked and I was next to a junk car and it was leaking gasoline," he says. "All of a sudden, I heard this boom! And I turned around again, the trunk of the car was shooting about 10 to 15 feet in the air."

Flight 191 crashed just after takeoff. It had been in the air only 31 seconds. Never higher than 300 feet. All 271 aboard died. Only two on the ground were killed.

"I don't like saying God put something here rather than here, but providentially, two seconds later, that plane would have been in the middle of those trailers. Ten seconds later, it would have been in the oil tank field," Homa says.

The crash site looks the same, 25 years later. Nothing more than an empty field.

"We could still probably find a piece of that plane," Jensen suggests.

And that, he says, has family members of the crash victims unhappy to this day. "There's no memorial, there's no plaque, there's nothing over there to commemorate that site."

Aviation buffs say the crash has a living legacy: the way it changed aircraft maintenance.

"When they grounded the DC-10, the American public felt that it was because it was a defective plane. It wasn't. It was bad maintenance," explains aviation expert Peter Greenberg.

He and the History Channel recently retraced the investigation. How did a jet engine fall off an airplane as it roared down the runway? The simple answer: American Airlines hurried repairs to save money.

"And by the way, they didn't do it secretly," says Greenberg. "They told McDonnell-Douglas they were going to do it, they told the FAA they were going to do it and nobody said 'boo.'"

Greenberg worries that cash-strapped airlines may be forgetting the lessons of flight 191 as they outsource more and more maintenance. This cop, fire chief and priest say they remember the crash not in nightmares, but with every passing jumbo jet. It's been a quarter century. They still look up.

There are so many fascinating details from that crash that we cannot fit into a four-minute story. That broken bolt was only one small clue in explaining how the engine came off. And American's chief maintenance man killed himself before the investigation was complete.

This story was posted 03.17.05 and has not been updated.

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