'There's nothing for these paramedics to do': Remembering the Flight 191 crash
It was a cool, sunny Friday afternoon in May. Staffers at the Daily Herald were wrapping up their work and daydreaming about the weekend. Memorial Day was on the horizon.
Soon after 2:50 p.m. on May 25 the police and fire scanners in the newsroom squawked out something about an explosion.
With that, our coverage of the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 began. For many on the news staff, it wouldn't let up for weeks.
Still ranking as the worst plane crash in U.S. history, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed in a Des Plaines field 31 seconds after it took off from O'Hare International Airport, cartwheeling after an engine fell off the DC-10. Some 273 people were killed that day, including all 258 passengers and 13 crew members and two people on the ground.
"I remember that day," said photographer Dave Tonge, who had been on the job at the Daily Herald for five years and is now retired.
"It was lovely. Blue sky, clear. We always listened to the police and fire calls. And the first thing we heard was there was an explosion and it's over by the airport."
At first, Tonge thought it might be the cluster of huge fuel tanks at the northwest corner of Touhy Avenue and Elmhurst Road that was bordered on two sides by a trailer park.
"Five minutes later it's that we think it's an airplane that's gone down," Tonge said.
He grabbed his three cameras and two-way radio, made an emergency run to the camera store for a brick (10 rolls) of film and headed to the scene.
"I got in the car and drove like crazy," he said.
What follows is an edited version of Tonge's recollections from that day 40 years ago.
Q. There had to be many emergency vehicles at the scene by the time you got there, Dave. How did you get close?
A: On Mount Prospect Road headed toward it going south I could see the smoke. I mean it billowed up 5,000 feet. You can see it for miles. It's huge, black, black as can be. So I'm following the smoke, trying to get closer and closer. I had to go through a Shell station at one point because of cops blocking the road on Mount Prospect Road.
Now, I'm getting really, really close and getting up close to near the mobile home park that's there. I drove in a half a block and got all my equipment on my shoulders and started walking through and came in from the west.
Q. Can you describe the smell, the visibility? Do you remember the first signs of debris you encountered?
A. The smell. It's not like a diesel smell. It's similar to that but it's more acid.
I almost felt like the blackness of the smoke would somehow fall out of the sky and get my skin dirty.
I had to climb over one small fence. But then as I got closer and closer to the hole in the ground, I can see a piece of the fuselage. But still I'm the only one back here.
All the way and all the time I was driving I was thinking, 'How am I going to photograph this, as bad as they say it is? There's got to be parts of people. body parts. I hate to say it ... things in the trees maybe' ... I just envisioned all kinds of gruesomeness. I've got to be careful what I photograph here.
Q. Describe what was happening at the scene when you got there.
A. I could see Touhy a little bit. And all the ambulances were lined up -- 25, 30, 40, 50 maybe. And lots of fire trucks.
And they're putting out flames here and there.
But there's nothing for these paramedics to do.
Turns out, they found out pretty quickly that there's no survivors.
It was just amazing. There was just a hole in the ground. A few big pieces of the plane, an undercarriage, I don't think I actually saw an engine.
Q. I know you were among three photographers who were on the ground for us that day. Since you got in the back door, so to speak, were you alone?
A. There weren't too many photographers that got back there. I had one photographer who came in -- a friend of mine -- he tried to get in from Touhy. There was a fence there and they handcuffed him to the fence. He spent an hour handcuffed to a fence.
Q. Without any survivors to help, what were all of the emergency workers doing?
A. The firefighters were walking around all in full helmets and regalia ... they were putting in flags, little flags, three feet tall, with a number on the top of it.
It took a couple hours to realize that these flags they were planting in the ground were symbolic representations of a body or two or three.
That's what hit me.
Just, just horrible.
We had somebody else go up in a helicopter and got an aerial from up above. And it was just a hole in the ground.
Even though it seemed to turn O'Hare Field off for a while, I do remember seeing a couple airplanes take off -- but not in the direction of this one.
I learned later that there was a man who died in this crash, and one of his relatives died in another plane crash a year or so earlier.
That day was just remarkable. Just etched in my mind really.
Q. Do you remember everything about that day -- what assignments you'd shot earlier?
A. I had shot assignments but what they were ... it was memories obliterated with this.
Q. Did you come in again on Saturday and Sunday?
A. Yeah. But I don't think I went back out there until probably a week later. And they were still sifting through the hole in the ground looking for remains.
Q. Have you ever talked about this with the other guys who were basically at ground zero of this disaster?
A. Only for a week or two afterward. And then maybe a year later.
It was many years later, where this was the first corner of what we ended up calling the Rosemont Triangle: There is the DC-10 crash, there is John Wayne Gacy -- I was there that first day on him -- and at some point it was the Rosemont Horizon ... it collapsed during construction.
So those three major events all happened within five miles of each other maybe.
Q. Did you have any lasting physical effects from covering the plane crash?
A. We all got lung infections or a cold in the middle of summer and we were all convinced it's because of the plastics that ... fueled the flames, and we were breathing that stuff.
Just about every photographer I spoke to complained that, yeah, I had a hard time breathing and I had phlegm in my lungs for a few days.
Q. This had to be the biggest story you ever covered, right? Were you at the Arlington Park Racetrack fire in '85?
A. No, I was off that day because I was moving. I was watching it on TV.