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40-years-ago today: Crash of United Flight 553. A woman remembers her rescue by a Chicago firefighter.

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There was a lot of intrigue surrounding the crash forty-years-ago today of United Flight 553 into a neighborhood near Chicago’s Midway Airport. When the flight took off from National Airport, among the passengers on board the Boeing 737 was Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. She was carrying $10,000 in cash. In another seat was CBS reporter Michele Clark who was following the Watergate story. Both died in the crash along with 41 other people on the plane and two women on the ground.

But the story we are bringing you today isn’t about those who died. It’s about one of the 18 people on the plane who lived and the Chicago firefighter who found her and helped bring her to safety. It’s written by my friend Tom Jackman at The Washington Post.

Tom recently talked with Ashburn, Virginia resident Marguerite McCausland, now 77, who was a stewardess working the first class section of the flight. It was Firefighter John “Duke” O’Malley who discovered McCausland alive, still strapped in a jump seat and buried under debris with flames all around her. It was O’Malley who stayed with her and helped free McCausland as hoses played on the flames.

Here’s an excerpt from Tom’s story posted Thursday on the State of NoVa blog:

Items from the plane’s galley and bathroom crashed down on top of her, then bricks from one of the houses. She was pinned. Elsewhere in the plane, “people were trapped. I could hear them dying.” She heard a baby crying, then stop. “I couldn’t see any of this. I do remember I could feel parts of my body burning.”

After 20 minutes, “I remember the firemen coming in,” McCausland said. “One of them came in and said, ‘There’s no one alive in here.’ I probably did something to let them know I was there.”

O’Malley climbed over to her. “He said, ‘I’m going to throw a cloth over your face,’” McCausland recalled, “’because we’re going to cut you out and I don’t want you to get burned.’”

Frank Hanes, a photographer from Chicago Today, watched and wrote: ”The heat from the fire was terrific but there were these men right in the middle of the flames trying to save a stewardess. The firemen kept a steady stream of water on her while the rescuers worked for about 10 minutes in the midst of the fire before they finally got her out alive.”

Tom tells us the firefighter and the stewardess and their spouses became friends and stayed in touched for many years. Firefighter O’Malley died last year.

Take a moment today to read Tom’s wonderful story.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Legeros

    That’s an interesting video.

    Makes me wonder about modern times. If (when?) a jumbo jet crashes into a neighborhood, it seems likely if not certain that video footage from residents and bystanders will be shot. From camera phones. Maybe some camcorders or digital cameras that also shoot video.

    What about hours into the incident? When crews are recovering bodies, as are fleetingly shown in the unedited footage above? Maybe, possibly. If there was a department videographer on scene. Otherwise, fire lines and yellow tape would be in extreme effect.

    Finally, when would such footage surface? Fire Rescue TV ran footage almost immediate of the fighter jet crash in Virginia Beach. They had footage from pretty early into the incident. But add victims and fatalities? I guess those would be embargoed (right word?). But would the footage surface years or decades later, even if edited into a collection of clips by a buff’s group? Don’t know.

    We might’ve turned a corner there, for willingness to present “graphic” images in modern times of victims. What do you think, Dave?

  • Fire21

    Modern media thrives on the sensational. We see murder and accident scenes with blood smears all over walls and streets. Now and then we even get a glimpse of a body. I think a major crash would see a lot of editing and prevention of broadcasting of such sights by the media themselves, based on public opinion. But, with social media and the internet in general, it would be totally up to the person posting as to what they wanted others to see. It could be ghastly!!

    • Legeros

      More curious to me is whether we’d see decades-later footage compiled. Like the above clip, shown in present day. Guess that’s for our future selves to determine.

      I’d expected heavy editing in the moment by media and broadcasters, and even as recaps were done over the years. (What’s the state of things on YouTube, however? Are there bodies everywhere? Or a lot of self-censorship?)

      Wonder just how morbidly curious or tolerant we’ll be in thirty or forty or fifty years? (Or at least, toward things that happened that far in the past…)

  • AbsoluteReality

    Thanks Dave.!!

    A Great reminder of when FireMEN rode on the apparatus.

    I believe that it would be less likely to happen today
    with the ever-growing ranks (and Ranks) of “FireFighters”.

    I’m not talking about gender but about attitude and character.

    It’s both a blessing and a curse to have been a part of the
    era of Firemen. A blessing to have worked shoulder-to-shoulder
    with them. A curse to see it passing away so swiftly.

    Probably the same feelings as our War Vets that after all their
    blood, sweat and tears to see our Country rapidly going dow the drain.

    May the LORD Bless the Vets and the Firemen for their service.

  • Radioman911
  • Fatther Greg

    I was there and just walked home from Queen of the Universe school (6th grade)…..The firemen were not even there yet when me and a buddy were up close to that flaming disaster, and when the firefighters arrived, they asked us to help drag the hoses.

  • Radioman911

    Father Greg, could you please send me an email to radioman911info (at) ? I am in Chicago and have the raw footage from WGN of this incident on 3/4″ videotape. I need to dub it off and would love to share it with you and the history buffs.

  • Rudedawg

    The one thing that always stands out in Chicago is how the “neighborhood” gets involved. Every major fire in Chicago’s history, the people of Chicago can be seen doing whatever it takes to help. The Our Lady of the Angels School fire is a classic example. The first fire units arrived in 4 minutes that day. The “neighborhood” was already there. Priests, bakers, delivery men,housewives and anybody that saw what was going on. They made rescues, took care of the injured, forced entry (with whatever they had and brute force), and even brought their own ladders to assist in the rescues. All that was going on in the mere 4 minutes it took for the fire department to arrive that day. I’m sure its not just in Chicago, but for some reason the people there have a common goal when tragedy strikes. Do whatever it takes to get the job done, and always take care of the neighborhood.