Friday, November 30, 2007

December 7th 1972, Just Before 3 PM On A Friday

I heard the crash from my seventh grade classroom at Dawes, a mile to the south. The crash, the thud, was nothing compared to the sirens. A United flight had overshot the airport and crashed into several houses on 70th and 71st Street (Midway being at approximately 59th Street). My father--on patrol with the 8th District at 63rd and St. Louis--was the second squad responding at the scene and so I did not see him again until sometime on Saturday the 8th, our house smelling like blood and smoke for hours. My father, James, never talked much about his 31 years on the force, he might've mentioned in conversation the first time he shot his service revolver on the fire escape of the old Colony Theater, things like that, when pressed for the info. It was later that I heard about the dead bodies on garage roofs, the bodies in the plane melted into the coil springs of the seats, a severed head caused by an overhead compartment spilling luggage. My father still has frostbite in his right toes, 35 years later, and the crash is only recalled on conspiracy websites, E, Howard Hunt's wife died in the crash at the height of the Watergate investigation, why were there FBI agents at the scene before Chicago cops and firemen? For months I've been looking for the Chicago Tribune photo of the tail section sticking up out the the winter trees, but to no avail. There was another crash in 2005, almost the same day, this time the plane not stopping on the slickened runway. A kid in a car was killed, back in 72, 45 died and 3 on the ground. You can still drive down 70th Street near Kostner and see four homes that look out of place in the center of the block, new brick, built almost identically alike. (Nowadays, two-dimensionality in a neighborhood or subdivision is the norm.) Its always interesting when relatives from Kentucky or friends from downstate Indiana visit, they spend so much time looking at the skies at moving objects I've long ago taken for granted. Every twelve minutes if you keep watch on the right mote in the daytime sky that passes overhead as the next mote takes its place. Motes that sometimes fall from the sky...Wayne


Charles Gramlich said...

My ex told me a story about a plane crash that happened in New Orleans when a plane crashed just after takeoff into the city. I don't know how much of her "memory" of the events were accurate and how much she picked up from others, because she was very young. But it's clear it was a terrible tragedy.

HemlockMan said...

That's pretty hideous. Aircraft accidents seem to be among the worst for carnage. Understandable, considering.

Painful detail about your dad getting frostbite. How hideously cold it must have been!

Anonymous said...

Midway has a lengthy history of crashes. One of my earliest memories is being taken out to a crash site in the middle of the night, in my mother's arms, then my father's, being passed from to the other like a little package, wrapped in a blanket. It was on the 55th and Central side of the airport, the same location as the 2005 crash. I remember looking through the chain link fence and seeing the tail and another section of the plane in flames (maybe a DC3, this was back in the day when prop planes were still the backbone of air travel). I saw no bodies or carnage, but that burning wreckage stays with me to this day.

I remember December 7, 1972 -- it should be noted that the airport extends between 55th and 63rd street -- so 70th was still close by. The carnage was so devastating I thought it would be the death knell of Midway Airport. Who would want to land at that little square mile postage stamp of an airport? Even though I remember in its heyday a cheap evening's entertainment could be had by going out to the parking lot at 63rd and Cicero to watch the planes landing and taking off.

I also remember an old World War II prop plane, on its way to an air show, taking out a house somewhere around 62nd Street, near the Nathan Hale school. That was some time in the later 1970s -- when I'd already moved up to the north side.

In 2002, while I was in San Jose for the Worldcon, I'd gone out on this little outdoor patio in the convention center to smoke. Plenty of people out there -- drinking coffee, talking, eating the bad snacks from the convention center's food service. The San Jose Intl. Airport is fairly close, and one of the flight paths go right over the downtown area, where the Worldcon was located. I could tell the people who there from the east coast -- they quietly freaked out with every jet that passed over (this was a year after 9/11). They had this sense that "something was out of place" -- jets shouldn't be that low over a populated area.

But I grew up with that sort of thing, until Midway lost all its business to O'Hare. Even then, Midway was the place where the Goodyear blimp moored when it was in town. I was used to seeing planes coming in so low you could make out the heads of passengers through the windows.

I have vague memories of another crash, more toward Marquette Park, sometime in the '60s. A lot of houses taken out, a lot of bodies spread over a wide area. There were some neighborhood people caught taking wallets and watches off the bodies. Chicago is Chicago.

Windycon has been out at Wyndham O'Hare Rosemont the past few years, next to the Allstate Arena, and another flight path brings the planes down low right over their parking lots. There are times it seems like one flight slightly off course would shave the twelfth floor off the top of the hotel. Some folks get freaked out. Most are oblivious. But I find it all familiar, watching the planes come in.

But I also remember those horrendous crashes, how the cops and fire department worked heroically in that nightmare in '72. The cops are always under a cloud in this city, but at moments like that you get to see how seriously most cops take their jobs. Would that we could see that in less devastating moments. And that life that seems so commonplace, serene, complacent, even mundane, can be wiped out in a second, with no warning.