Before the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the worst airline-related disaster in American history occurred on Memorial Day weekend of 1979 in Chicago. On Friday, May 25, 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 as fate would have it, the plane would never leave the Windy City.

It was a beautiful holiday weekend in Chicago and throngs of people filled O’Hare International, the world’s busiest airport. The passengers of Flight 191, including a number of Chicago literary figures who were bound for Los Angeles and the annual American Booksellers Association conference, boarded the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about the flight. 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, a 22,000 hour pilot who had been flying DC-10’s 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.

Flight 191 as it began to wheel sideways and then to cartwheel into a crash
(AP Photos)

Experience the Ghosts, Local Legends & Best Kept Secrets of the Windy City!

Weird Chicago Tours!

At one minute before 3:00, the plane was cleared to begin its taxi to the runway’s holding point. Then, at 3:02 pm, Flight 191 started down the runway. All went smoothly until a point about 6,000 feet down the runway, just prior to rotation. 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 aircraft pitched into rotation and lifted off. As it did so, the entire engine and pylon tore loose from its mounting, flipped up and over the wing and crashed down onto the runway.

Immediately, the tower controller tried to raise the plan 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 out normally, only dipping the left wing for a moment. It quickly stabilized and the plane continued its descent. About ten seconds later though, 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 it fell to the earth!

The left wingtip hit the ground first and the rip of the metal was followed by a massive explosion that erupted throughout the plane. The fireball went down about a half mile northwest of O’Hare and slammed into an abandoned hangar on the site of the old Ravenswood Airport on Touhy Avenue, just east of a mobile home park. It was mostly vacant ground, although the plane narrowly missed some fuel storage tanks on Elmhurst Road and the busy I-90 Expressway. However, 2 people were killed on the ground and several homes were damaged in the trailer park. As for the crew and passengers on the aircraft --- all 271 of them had been killed instantly.

The enormity of the tragedy was felt throughout the country and people everywhere demanded answers from the airline, the airport and the National Transportation Safety Board. How could something like this have happened? It is a standard in the industry for planes to be able to finish a flight with only one engine, so how did the loss of one engine seal the fate of Flight 191? The long and grueling investigation that followed revealed a stress crack in a flange that held the engine pylon, flawed maintenance methods and a problem with the supposedly serviceable DC-10. These answers were long in coming but even when they came, did not solve the mysteries that were plaguing Chicagoans who lived in the vicinity of the crash.

Ghostly tales soon began to spring up about the site. 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 that were carried by ghoulish souvenir hunters, officers responded to the reports 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, 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 retirees 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 masters 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. A fairly recent sighting was described by a man who was 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 his dog looked at this person curiously for he seemed to reek of gasoline and also appeared to be 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!

And he’s likely not the only one, for the stories of weird knockings, inexplicable sounds and even apparitions continue to this day. One long-standing incident, which is often repeated, comes from the terminal at O’Hare itself. According to travelers, many have purported to see a man making a telephone call from a booth that is located close to the departure gate that was used by Flight 191. Those who have seen him say that is quite normal-looking, except for the fact that his business attire seems oddly out of date. He allegedly steps away from the telephone booth, manages a few steps and then vanishes into thin air. Is he one of the doomed passengers from Flight 191 --- or another phantom altogether?


© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.