40 years ago Saturday, 273 people lost their lives in US’ deadliest plane accident

Investigators view the wreckage of the ill-fated American Airlines Flight 191 to Los Angeles, which crashed on takeoff in Chicago, Ill., shown May 26, 1979, a day after the worst disaster in aviation history in the U.S. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
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(Gray News) – On May 25, 1979, 271 people aboard American Airlines Flight 191 took off from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport bound for Los Angeles.

They never made it.

Shortly after takeoff, the plane lost one of its three engines. It went down nose first in an abandoned airfield not far from O’Hare and burst into flames.

Hospitals in the area were put on alert to be prepared for survivors. That order was canceled soon after.

Two people on the ground, plus the 271 aboard, lost their lives in that crash. Authorities called it the deadliest aviation accident in the history of the United States, a distinction it still maintains today, the Associated Press reported.

It is worth noting, more people were killed in the plane crashes on Sept. 11 2001. Even so, those events are considered acts of terrorism, not accidents.

Rescue crews used colored flags to mark where bodies could be found. A yellow one meant there were two or three, a red one meant just one and a black one meant five.

In all, 50 flags covered the crash site.

Officials used an American Airlines hanger to establish a temporary morgue. By the orders of Deputy Police Chief Charles Pepp, crews put as many bodies in police vans as they could manage, but did not stack them on top of one another.

“Treat them like your own personal family,” Pepp said.

The crash shut down the airport for a short time. Traffic on nearby highways slowed to a crawl as onlookers gathered at the scene.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the control tower knew at takeoff there was a problem, but the pilot, Capt. Walter H. Lux, didn’t have time to contact them.

John Wayne, who was a passenger on another flight landing on a separate runway, witnessed Flight 191 go down.

“The plane was in the air, and the young fellow in front of me said, ‘Look at that.’ I looked over and he said, ‘The engine fell off.’ We watched the plane as far as we could. He went on a fairly level course and gained just a little teeny bit of altitude and then he nosed off to the left, the wing went down and it was just one solid mass of flame all at once,” Wayne told the Associated Press.

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