First responders recollect chilling visions of Flight 191 crash
On the sunny Friday afternoon of May 25, 1979, the 258 passengers and 13 crew members beginning their Memorial Day weekend aboard American Airlines Flight 191 could not have imagined that they had barely 90 seconds to live.
The Los Angeles-bound McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jet crashed in a field off Touhy Avenue in an unincorporated area between Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village shortly after 3 p.m., moments after taking off from Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
The left engine fell off, making the plane roll in midair before plunging to the ground and bursting into flames. It released a plume of smoke that could be seen miles away.
All 271 people on board were killed, as well as two people on the ground where the plane crashed behind the Chicago Police Canine Training Facility.
A permanent memorial remembering those victims will be unveiled Saturday in Des Plaines. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the 11 a.m. dedication ceremony at Lake Park, 1012 Touhy Ave.
Following are the recollections of some of the first responders to the scene of what remains the deadliest, nonterror-related airplane crash in U.S. aviation history.
'Nothing could prepare you'
In his nearly four years as a Des Plaines firefighter, Tom Farinella hadn't experienced anything like it.
Then 26, Farinella was an acting lieutenant on Truck 81 with Des Plaines Fire Station No. 1 when the call came in that a plane had crashed.
"When we first got there, we were told that it was a cargo jet," Farinella recalled. "However, after you were on the scene and you spotted the first body or remains, there was no question that it was a passenger jet. The field was just totally ablaze because of all of the jet fuel. Nothing could prepare you for that."
Retired Des Plaines firefighter Jim Gardner of Rolling Meadows was making rounds with Engine 62 near Touhy Avenue and Wolf Road when he saw the explosion.
Gardner, then 35, had been with the fire department seven years and had just made lieutenant. His was the first fire truck to arrive on scene, according to Des Plaines.
"We saw the cloud of smoke and we started driving," Gardner said. "We pulled into the field. It was all scorched then. It was gone in a matter of minutes."
Farinella said he remembers the odors and the eerie quiet of that day pierced only by the sound of planes overhead and the sirens of emergency vehicles arriving at the crash site.
"I can remember planes still taking off and banking through the column of smoke," he said. "You hoped that there were people that you could save, but it quickly became evident that there were not. It was just devastation. You knew there were hundreds of people (dead)."
Once the fire was extinguished, the trucks had to go back into service and the job of cleaning up was left to someone else, Gardner said.
"I just didn't really even think about it the rest of that night," said Gardner, now 67. "Next morning, I sat up in the driveway with a cup of coffee and just cried for awhile. It was hard to deal with at that point, but you go on."
Farinella said he returned to the crash site the following day as an observer.
"What hit me that day was seeing all the stakes in the ground signifying where the remains were," he said.
Farinella said those images haunted him for days afterward.
"There was no such thing as critical incident stress debriefing," he said. "I can just remember after getting back to the fire station the dark humor that was expressed, and that was a way of coping. And you really relied on your fellow firefighters to get you through it."
Farinella, 59, who retired in 2004 as Des Plaines fire chief, said the memories hit him each time he drives past the crash site to this day.
"Firefighters are used to seeing property devastation, but when you see the tremendous loss of life, that has to stick with you," he said.
'Walking into a sea of death'
Dr. John Kenney was driving home to Des Plaines after teaching pediatric dentistry at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, traveling north on the Tri-State Tollway around 3:15 p.m. when the call came from American Airlines.
Kenney, who had worked for the airline from 1968 to 1972, was the first forensic dentist on the scene after the crash. He had just returned from taking a weeklong course in aircraft accident investigation at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.
He was part of a team of 30 dentists tapped to identify victims from charred remains. He drove to American's blue hangar at O'Hare, which later became the makeshift morgue. By 5:30 p.m., he was surveying the crash site, a scene he remembers as organized chaos.
"I was walking into a sea of death," said Kenney, who today has a pediatric dental practice in Park Ridge and is a staff member at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, also in Park Ridge.
Today, there are federal disaster teams that work major airline crashes and other large-scale catastrophes, and portable morgues are stationed around the country. None of that existed at the time of the Flight 191 crash.
"We had to put together a morgue from scratch," he said.
One of the images that stuck with him was when Batesville Casket Co. unloaded 300 caskets. "When you saw the rows and rows of body bags lined up in the blue hangar, you got a sense of the fragility of life, and the monumental task that faced us," Kenney said.
The forensic team worked round the clock for weeks. Kenney would see pediatric dental patients from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and go to the hanger until 10 each night.
"It takes a toll on you," Kenney said. "It takes a toll on your marriage."
Kenney's cathartic moment came about six weeks into the investigation. It was his first chance to kick back and watch television. The movie "The Hindenburg" was playing.
"I broke down and I cried for about an hour," he said. "Everything that had been locked up inside of me just came out."
Kenney said some victims were identified with mere jaw fragments and, in one case, with a single tooth.
By the end of the investigation July 15, the remains of 30 out of the 273 victims were unidentified. Those remains were eventually shipped to California to be buried in a group ceremony, Kenney said.
'A very unreal quality about it'
Chasing ambulances wasn't anything new for Paul Marcotte as Daily Herald's police beat reporter.
Marcotte, then 25, worked the 3 p.m. to midnight shift. He was out making the rounds to area police stations when someone from the newsroom called to say a plane was down. Marcotte followed emergency vehicles and got closer than any reporter could likely get today.
"There was no security set up," he said, adding that his red car probably looked like a fire department vehicle so no one stopped him.
Hunks of flesh, body parts and open luggage were scattered throughout the field, he recalled.
"It was a horrific scene. When I was experiencing it, I was numb. There was sort of a very unreal quality about it. After a while, I strayed away from it and started interviewing people in the area."
Marcotte talked to onlookers, someone who had escaped a burning building, and residents of nearby mobile homes that had been damaged by debris. But when he sat down to write, "anything I had to say was inadequate," he said.
Marcotte had nightmares for weeks. Months later, he gave up the police beat and became an education reporter. Now 57, he is an attorney in Elmhurst.
Marcotte first returned to the crash site for the 30th anniversary. He broke down as the memories came flooding back. Even today, he chokes up every time he thinks about it.
"I have not gone back to the site since that day," he said. "I have kind of consciously tried to avoid it.
"I don't think I'd ever want to experience anything like that again in my life."