Evan Cotter Jr. was getting ready to play hockey after school on a cold December afternoon in 1972 when the wing of a Boeing 737 slammed into the back of his family’s house.
From the bathroom, he heard the roar of jet engines that sounded far too low. His mother was in the kitchen as the tail of the plane went past the windows of the home on West 70th Place, more than a mile short of its destination at Midway Airport. Bricks, glass and the kitchen table flew through the house.
With what sounded to Cotter like a gas explosion, the plane plowed into the brick bungalows across the street. Forty-three people aboard the plane and two on the ground, at home, were killed.
The crash of United Flight 553 outside Midway on Dec. 8, 1972, left visible and invisible marks on family members and survivors. Swirled in unfounded conspiracy theories tied to the unfolding Watergate scandal in Washington, D.C., the crash would become the latest at Midway, and the latest transportation disaster in Chicago that year. It wouldn’t be the last.
Fifty years later, much has changed at Midway and in commercial aviation. In the neighborhood, the smell of jet fuel and smoke eventually faded, residents rebuilt homes and some moved back in. Cotter returned to the street, where he still lives down the block from his childhood home.
But among the rows of neat brick bungalows, the homes rebuilt on the sites of those that were destroyed still stand out because of their more recent construction.
Flight 553, traveling from Washington, D.C., to Omaha, Nebraska, with 61 passengers and crew, was scheduled to make a stop at Midway around 2:30 p.m. that Friday afternoon, according to Tribune reports. As it slowed and descended toward the airport, the control tower determined the jet was too close to a small plane that had just landed and ordered it to execute a missed approach, turning to come around again. The engines powered up but the crew, in a rush of cockpit activity during the descent, apparently did not realize the spoilers used to slow the plane were extended, and it stalled, according to news reports and National Transportation Safety Board findings.
Lauren West, 55, remembers hitting her head on the seat as the plane went down, and breaking her thumb. She remembers a long walk forward toward the exit, where she was met by firemen. She recalls waiting on someone’s porch, and being taken care of by neighbors.
She is certain she has blocked much of the rest of the crash.
West was returning home to Oak Lawn with her two sisters, brother and parents after almost two years in Kenya, where her parents were Peace Corps volunteers. Only she and her mother survived.
Before they got on the plane in D.C., she argued with her 8-year-old sister about who would get the window seat. Her sister had announced she wanted to sit by the window because the wing was going to fall off and the plane would crash, and she wanted to watch, West said.
After the crash, West’s large Irish Catholic family provided a support network for each other, she said. Her dad was larger than life, and many felt his loss acutely.
Her mother made sure West got back on a plane less than a year after the crash, arranging a flight to Las Vegas. West doesn’t recall feeling nervous, but her mom has told her she chatted incessantly to the person sitting next to her during the landing.
West now lives in San Diego with her family, as does her mother. In some respects, the crash made her feel invincible, free to take risks, she said.
The loss of her siblings and father also made her closer to the family she has today. She keeps in her house portraits painted by her mom of her dad, sisters and brother.
“You realize that things here on this planet are pretty temporary,” she said. “You don’t really necessarily know that so much as a child, unless you experience it.”
Also among those killed in the crash were U.S. Rep. George Collins, who represented a district on the city’s West Side; CBS News correspondent Michele Clark; and Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Watergate break-in organizer E. Howard Hunt.
The NTSB ultimately ruled that the crash was due to pilot error and failure by the captain “to exercise positive flight management,” but speculation of sabotage had already cropped up. Dorothy Hunt was carrying $10,000 in cash on the flight, which news accounts reported was rumored to be Watergate hush money.
Within minutes of the crash, Cotter, now 63, recalled seeing the plane’s tail sticking up from what was left of the homes across the street and hearing flames begin to crackle. He recalled meeting up with neighbors escaping damaged houses and watching injured men come out of the plane. Power was out to the neighborhood, and after dark a helicopter overhead shined lights onto the smoldering wreckage.
“Everything went sideways, it was like an explosion,” he said. “And it was terrifying. I called out to my mother, we ran into each other. We ran toward the front, and all you could see was the tail sticking out across the street.”
Afterward, Cotter’s family rebuilt his grandparents’ house down the street, which had also been damaged in the crash, and moved in. Cotter has lived there since, but some neighbors moved away in the years afterward.
“It shook the neighborhood up badly, but it never really bothered us,” he said. “Before that, people used to say they never thought twice about airplanes, and then after it happened I remember the neighbors used to come out when they heard an airplane and they used to look up, to make sure it was up.”
Across the street, a mother and daughter had been killed in their home. A second daughter, who lived there but wasn’t home at the time of the crash, rebuilt the house and lived there for years.
Antonio Garcia, 30, moved into the rebuilt house about three years ago, not knowing its history until neighbors filled him in. But he rarely thinks about the planes flying overhead. From inside his home, he can hardly hear them, he said.
“It was never a cause for concern that it would be like: Oh, it could happen again,” he said.
He can understand why the home was rebuilt: The house and neighborhood are filled with warmth, he said.
The 1972 crash was not the only major deadly collision in Chicago that year. Slightly more than a month earlier, two Loop-bound commuter trains crashed, killing 45 people and injuring more than 300. Less than two weeks after the Midway disaster, a North Central Airlines DC-9 collided with a Delta Air Lines Convair 880 on a runway at O’Hare International Airport in a dense fog, killing 10 people, according to Tribune reports.
It was also not the first, or last, plane crash at Midway. Exactly 33 years later, on Dec. 8, 2005, a Southwest jet skidded off the end of an icy runway as the pilots attempted to land in a snowstorm, the Tribune reported. The plane crashed through two fences and struck vehicles outside the airport on Central Avenue and 55th Street, killing a 6-year-old boy in a car.
But in the 50 years since the United Flight 553 crash, Midway and aviation have changed. One runway at the tightly bound city airport was extended 345 feet in 1991 to help planes move around the airfield and balance lengths on the airport’s primary runways, the Chicago Department of Aviation said.
Landing procedures for commercial flights have also changed, as have cockpit signals and data displays, said Robert Russo, a retired commercial pilot and co-founder of a group called Midway Historians. The runway lighting at Midway has improved, and there are fewer tall obstructions like trees and telephone poles close to the airport, he said.
And, he said, airplane technology and performance have improved.
“I’m not saying that you can be complacent coming into Midway, because there’s not a lot of margin for error,” he said. “But it’s much safer than it used to be. And the airplanes certainly make it much safer, and all the improvements around the airport.”
Crashes are usually the result of chains of events, and this crash was no different, he said. Theories suggesting a Watergate-tied sabotage don’t hold up to him, because the plane was so close to landing and a mistake was identified.
Russo, who has lived near Midway his whole life, went to the scene of the crash shortly after the plane came down. He recalled looking at the plane’s cockpit next to a row of garages.
He said crashes — both the 1972 crash and others — have not changed the area.
“In this neighborhood, the roots go deep in many cases,” he said. “And having an airport here, I think most people really like the airport being here now, because for us it’s an eight-minute drive and we’re in the terminal. So the convenience, instead of having to go to O’Hare, far outweighs any concern about safety.”
Cotter had nightmares for years after the crash, but they eventually faded, he said. The frequent roar of the jets that still fly overhead no longer bothers him.
In his home, he keeps a piece of the 737 found on his sister’s bed after the crash.
“I rarely ever dream of airplanes anymore,” he said.