On the afternoon of May25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191 departed Chicago’s O’Hare Airport terminal K5 with 271 people aboard, scheduled to Los Angeles at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. The tower cleared the huge DC-10 Luxury Liner for takeoff and it began its departure roll northwest down runway 32R. Halfway through takeoff the left engine separated from the wing, disabling hydraulics and throwing the jet into an irrecoverable left roll. It barely crossed Touhy Avenue east of Elmhurt Road and exploded into a ball of fire, killing all passengers and crew, and two people on the ground. Smoke from the wreckage could be seen from downtown Chicago skyscrapers.
First responders on the scene have not forgotten the carnage to this day, overwhelmed by the deathly stillness of the scene after the flames were extinguished, and by the unbelievable loss of life.
Forensics experts, newspaper and television reporters have not forgotten, most of all the families of those who died. For over 30 years, they had to deal with no sense of closure of the tragedy.
Lawsuits connected with the crash were settled. The scene of the crash has changed little over the years, and departing and arriving flights into O’Hare pass overhead daily. Still, some commemoration was needed.
Enter the Decatur Classic School Sixth Grade of 200-2010 of Des Plaines,who felt they could do something to remember the victims and their families. This was a group of students that wouldn’t take no for an answer. They worked long and tirelessly and got some high profile help.
The students had brainstormed for something they could do for Project Citizen, a national civic education program for 5th through 8th grade students coordinated through the Constitutional Rights Council of Chicago. The kids were moved by the story their assistant principal, Kim Jockl, who shared her connection to the crash that killed both her parents, and they wanted to do something to commemorate the passing years. As they began research and gathered evidence, they learned this was the single deadliest aircraft accident in the United States outside of a terrorist attack.
The proposed memorial was to be a way for those who have grieved because of the crash to find closure. Not only families of victims, but of news media, first responders, and other emergency and medical providers that were affected as well would find a way to express their feelings.
After much effort that included a letter writing campaign, trying to gain support from American Airlines which initially wasn’t forthcoming, the findings of the students were presented to Dave Davis, from the office of Congressman Schakowsky, Tom Demetrio of the law offices of Demetrio and Corboy, Terri Brady of the FAA, and Fred Gibbs from Governor Quinn.
In the Student Journey Speech, delivered at the Ocrtober memoial dedication, the sudents said, “. . we designed a memorial themed with the concepts of nature and healing. Our story and your story gained local, state, and national recognition.”
The crash of AA Flight 191 also has an area connection and was remembered on October 15, 2011 when the memorial was officially opened. Paul Schade, originally from Ashton, and his family, Zaida, and their daughters, Marjorie and Zaidata, were among the passengers killed on the flight. Mr. Schade farmed south of Ashton during the 1960s. On the day of the crash, the four were headed to California for Schade’s Navy reunion. Funeral services for the family were held at the Mills Petrie Building in Ashton and afterward were laid to rest in Ashton Cemetery.
The class of 2009-2010 at Decatur Classic made a difference. The memorial project gained much needed moral and financial support with American Airlines donating $20,000 to the final construction at Lake Park, DesPlaines.
A bronze plaque that showcases the concave memorial in the southeast corner of the park states the vision that kept the project alive to completion: “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.” It is hoped that this long overdue remembrance to the victims of AA Flight 191 will help families, loved ones, and friends deal with this enormous tragedy.