The day before yesterday was the 36th anniversary of the crash of Flight 191 at Chicago O’Hare airport. I was 24 years old, engaged to be married and a member of the Chicago Fire Department EPDS which stood for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Services. This was the old Civil Defense Unit. We ran out of an old firehouse at 43rd and Wood St and before that at Division and Wells. We responded to extra alarm fires and disasters with various apparatus including a large compressor unit, a light wagon, and an equipment van. I was on the list to be hired as a paramedic and was a young, crazy “fan”.
The day of the crash I was at home napping, as I had worked my night shift as a Paramedic/Tech at Grant Hospital ER. My brother called me on the phone and asked if I was aware of what was going on at O’Hare. Of course I was oblivious and turned on the TV. Then I loaded up my turnout gear into my old Toyota and took off for the airport. As it was later in the afternoon traffic was already snarled and I figured it to be an hour drive even from the North side where I lived. At Elston Avenue a CPD wagon rolled past me, lights and siren and I thought, “what the hell” and jumped on his ass. I followed him through red lights right to the scene. I often wonder if he knew I was behind him but I made it to Touhy avenue and parked where I could and got my gear on.
Walking up to the scene of the crash was like stepping directly into your worst nightmare. The fires were out for the most part except for spot fires and most of the firefighters were walking around looking absolutely stunned. The scene was spread out over several hundred yards. To the east was the CPD K9 units training facility. To the west was a trailer park. In the middle of this was a long deep trench that was cut by Flight 191’s left wing that had to be a hundred feet long. Most debris was small,but it was everywhere.There wasn’t one inch that didn’t have a piece of the airplane or a body part on it. There was a set of wheels in the middle and a jet engine also. A couple of trailers had caught fire but had already been extinguished.
As I moved through the scene looking for other members of EPDS, I had the feeling of being overwhelmed. Eventually I found a few of our members and a chief. He put us to work looking for body parts. They gave us a bunch of wooden stakes with colored tape attached and told us to stick the stake in next to the part we found. The problem was that out of 273 fatalities that day, no one was intact. At least no one we found. You would stand there looking out over the scene and then look down to realize you were standing on a leg. You would move off the leg and be standing on another body part.
Putting stakes in the ground occupied us for at least the next 4 hours. The sun was getting low on the horizon and they gathered us all up into a group that included everyone, paid guys from the city, suburban guys who were the first on the scene from Elk Grove Village and Township, Arlington Hts, EPDS guys. We were divided into teams of 4 or 5 guys and they sent us out with a Cook County Sheriffs Department photographer and another deputy sheriff with a clipboard and a map divided into small quadrants. They gave us a stack of body bags and we went out from there. At each stake in the ground the Sheriff Photographer would snap a picture and the other Sheriff would mark where we were on the map with a reference number. We would put one body part in the bag and off we would go to a wagon or a larger refrigerator truck. Then we went back to the team to continue. This continued until long after dark. At one time we were joined by NTSB investigators. They were absolutely amazing. They could pick up a piece of debris as small as a bolt and tell you what it was from. One of the investigators called for another member when we found the pilot. This gentleman knew the pilot personally and it was an emotional moment for all of us. A short time later a member of the team looked up and shined his handlight up into a tree that had a body in it.
And that is how it went, long into the night. They brought in a load of Browns Fried Chicken but no one felt much like eating. I was relieved at about 11 PM and packed up and went home. I had called my fiancee from a pay phone and had her call the ER and tell them I couldn’t make it in. No cell phones in 1979. I walked into our apartment and my future wife, who still is my wife for some strange reason, had a case of beer on ice. l had more than a few and tried to go to sleep without a whole lot of success.
That was and still is the worst day I ever spent in a firecoat and boots. I didn’t get on an airplane until 10 years ago when I had to, to attend my sons graduation from Marine Corps boot camp. I still have moments when jet fuel smell brings back the memory of that day and I stop to say a prayer for those lost. May they all rest in peace.