Forty years ago this weekend, a United airliner fell from the sky, dropping like a bomb onto a Midway-area neighborhood. Forty-five people were killed, including two on the ground who thought they were safe at home.
The 1972 United crash was the last major commercial airline accident at Midway until a 2005 incident where a Southwest jet landing in a snowstorm slid off a runway into traffic on Central Avenue and killed a 6-year-old boy. That safety record is in marked contrast to the airport's earlier history.
Since the airstrip opened as Chicago Municipal Airport in December 1927, there have been at least nine major accidents resulting in fatalities.
Two of the worst fatal accidents occurred in the 1950s, a particularly bad decade that saw five incidents.
NOV. 24, 1959
Most of the West Lawn residents were sleeping soundly when a TWA cargo plane "fell like a flaming bomb into an area of small homes and apartments just southeast of Midway field," the Tribune reported. It was about 5:30 a.m., days before Thanksgiving.
The aircraft cut a path through seven homes and an apartment building, and flattened three garages. As it came crashing to the earth, the 61-ton, four-engine aircraft nearly took the roof off a home at 6425 S. Knox St., did shear the roofs off two houses farther down the same block, and plowed through the corner of a two-story, eight-unit apartment building on the 4600 block of West 64th Street before smashing into two bungalows on the 6200 block of South Kilpatrick Avenue. Those houses weren't destroyed, they were obliterated. Thousands of gallons of fuel spewed over the area, and fires raged.
The scene was horrific; the Tribune described burning gasoline running in roof gutters, a mother screaming for her babies and firefighters collecting human limbs.
"It looked like hell had opened up," said the Rev. Peter Dunne, pastor of nearby St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church.
Another survivor, who had been drinking his morning coffee in the kitchen, said, "The plane came through the kitchen window. I don't know how I got out."
One father was awakened by the sound of lumber splintering. He rushed with his wife to the children's room. "The back wall was shattered and wreckage lay all over the crib and two beds," said Thomas Fracassi.
They frantically dug through the plaster, bricks and wood and found their 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, injured but alive. But their 2-year-old son's bed was empty. "He apparently got out of bed before the crash," Fracassi said. "I found him wandering in the hallway."
Others weren't so lucky. One man lost his wife and two teenage children. A 27-year-old mother died with her 5-month-old son.
The final toll was grim: Nine people on the ground were killed. The three-man crew also died. An additional 10 were injured, many badly burned.
The accident raised the question of why the area around Midway was so densely populated. The Cook County coroner said the development of the area would be part of the crash investigation. It's a debate that has raged impotently for years. For the residents of those neighborhoods, including Garfield Ridge, Clearing, Chrysler Village, West Lawn, West Elsdon and Archer Heights, the airport was a daily part of their lives, from the noise of the planes to the economic engine it provides.
After the crash, some residents swore it was just horrible luck. "We notice the noise more than ever before," Elmer Bolin told the Tribune in January 1960. "But no one in my home fears that it will happen again."
Bolin had moved to the house in 1928 and said the vibration from planes overhead cracked windows and plaster. "We're used to the noise and things falling off our shelves."
After the 1972 crash, the Tribune found Fracassi to ask him about recovering from such a traumatic event. He said it took years for him to sleep soundly. "I would lie awake at night thinking about it. A sudden noise when I was sleeping, like a door slamming, would make me jump out of bed and head for the door."
In the end, he and his wife decided to move their family to Oak Lawn, like many of the families that lived through the 1959 crash.
"It is a horrible, unnerving experience," said another 1959 survivor after the 1972 crash. "It will take years to overcome. Many people moved out, but I guess we will stay ... and pray."