Finally, a memorial for American Flight 191 victims

Thirty-two years of waiting to memorialize the victims of American Airlines Flight 191 is long enough, says Melody Smith of Arlington Heights, whose parents were killed in a crash on this day in 1979.

Finally, a permanent memorial will be dedicated this fall in Des Plaines to remember the 273 lives lost in the deadliest, non-terror-related airplane crash in U.S. aviation history.

All 271 passengers and crew members on board the flight were killed, as well as two people on the ground where the plane fell in a field off Touhy Avenue in an unincorporated area between Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village.

Des Plaines Park District officials propose erecting a stone wall memorial in Lake Park, behind a large flower planter at the northwest corner of Touhy Avenue and Lee Street, not far from where Flight 191 went down shortly after taking off from O’Hare International Airport.

It will bear the names of all the victims, including Smith’s parents, Corrinne and Bill Borchers.

“I thought this would probably never happen in my lifetime because who is going to listen to a 60-some-year-old,” said Smith, now 64.

Smith and her 55-year-old sister, Kim Jockl, an assistant principal at Decatur Classical School in Chicago, have been trying to get some sort of commemoration for Flight 191 victims for years. On the 25th anniversary of the crash, the sisters organized a memorial gathering at a chapel in O’Hare Airport’s Terminal 2.

That brought together nearly 30 families of crash victims.

“I think at that time we were really just thinking of trying to get together and find people that were connected to this flight,” Smith said. “We sometimes met people at the chapel at O’Hare because that’s what we as a family did to commemorate the crash. The memorial was in our hearts really.”

Every May 25, Smith and Jockl were reminded of the lack of a physical tribute for their parents and other crash victims, but their efforts to get even a modest memorial failed.

“After the 25th (anniversary), we hoped somebody would take the ball and try to get a memorial,” Smith said. “We would have been fine with a plaque (in the airport chapel).”

It wasn’t until the 30th anniversary of the crash that a class of sixth graders at Jockl’s school made it their mission to get a memorial for Flight 191. It was a two-year project through the Constitutional Rights Foundation, under the direction of teachers Beth Allegretti and Marianne Sharping.

The students wrote letters to state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, who helped secure roughly $20,000 in funding from American Airlines for a memorial.

“This is how long this has taken,” Smith said. “What these kids did was amazing.”

Jockl added, “This has been a labor of love.”

The stone memorial will be 24 inches high and 75 feet in length resembling a retaining wall following the contour of the planter. It will include a plaque describing the crash and bear the names of all the victims, said John Hecker, executive director of the Des Plaines Park District.

The memorial will have a tree and landscaping around it and may include a bench.

“It will be very tastefully done,” Hecker said. “It will be a place of reflection.”

Hecker said he had a personal interest in the memorial as one of the passengers killed aboard Flight 191 was Robert Artz, then-executive director of the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

Victims’ families are still trying, with the help of lawmakers, to get American Airlines to release an accurate list of names of all the passengers who were killed in the crash.

A spokesman for American Airlines declined to comment about Flight 191.

“That’s the last piece of the puzzle,” Jockl said. “As soon as we have the names, this will probably happen in the fall. There will now be a place for people to connect with others who share this tragedy.”

Images: The Crash of Flight 191

The May 25, 1979, crash of American Airlines Flight 191 is considered the worst non-terror-related airplane crash in U.S. aviation history. Daily Herald file photo
This is the scene at the crash site of American Airlines Flight 191 on May 25, 1979. Daily Herald file photo