Mike Zaniolo was a 21-year-old college student working as an intern at Motorola in Schaumburg 32 years ago when he heard about the crash of American Airlines Flight 191.
"We had a radio on in the lab and we heard about it," said Zaniolo of Des Plaines. "We went outside and we saw this big cloud of smoke. I couldn't believe it. As time went by, we just kept hearing more about it, how many people were on board and how terrible the tragedy was."
On a bright and sunny Chicagoland morning Saturday, Father Michael Zaniolo, O'Hare Airport chaplain, offered comfort and closure to the families and friends of the 273 who perished on Friday, May 25, 1979, when the left engine fell off a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jet, throwing it into the ground.
Under a grand oak tree fiercely clinging to its leaves against a cutting October wind, an estimated 1,000 people gathered for the dedication of the Flight 191 memorial in Des Plaines' Lake Park.
Zaniolo provided the invocation at the sobering event.
Would he have ever guessed he'd be here 32 years after the fateful crash?
"No way," he said. "At that time, I didn't even want to become a priest. I was studying electrical engineering. Then I discovered that God was calling me into the priesthood. I never dreamed I would be assigned out here as the airport chaplain."
Before the ceremony, people adorned the memorial -- a modest, simple garden of trees and other plants surrounded by a berm of bricks, each inscribed with the name of a crash victim -- with flowers and photographs of loved ones lost.
"For many people, they can't even drive down Higgins Road past that spot," Zaniolo said. "It took them so long to work up the courage to do that."
Kathy DeYoung remembers the moment she knew her 18-year-old daughter Rhonda had been killed.
"I was working," DeYoung, of Matteson said, standing next to the brick bearing her daughter's name. "I told everyone that my daughter's about ready to take off. Then I got into the car and heard it on the radio. I went ballistic."
She praised the students at Chicago's Decatur Classical School who were instrumental in establishing the memorial.
The sixth-grade class of 2009-2010 took it on as a project after hearing how their assistant principal, Kim Jockl, lost her parents, Corrine and Bill Borchers, in the tragedy.
"We are so happy," Jockl said. "Our hearts are beating with joy. After 32 years when everyone died in this crash at the same moment, today, we're going to celebrate all the other moments in their lives."
Speakers included Des Plaines Mayor Martin Moylan, plus State Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, who both helped secure the $20,000 cost of the memorial from American Airlines.
Kotowski was one of several speakers lauding the sixth-graders who followed through on their quest to secure an official 191 memorial.
"It's so refreshing that someone took it upon themselves to do this, and honor the people who were killed," she said. "I can't say enough about these sixth graders. They tackled a phenomenal task."
But does the 191 memorial bring a sense of closure?
"There will never be an actual closure," DeYoung said, "even though it's been 32 years."
Onstage, the Decatur Classical Chicago Children's School choir sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as the sunlight caught a single tear below the sunglasses of a woman in the fifth row.
"We gather to remember," Zaniolo said, leading the group in prayer.
He concluded with "We ask You to bless this memorial. And to bless all who come here seeking peace and solace in their hearts."