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The Ghosts of Flight 191

Judith and Sheldon Wax were local literary figures — she an author, he a top editor at Playboy. Forty years ago this month, they and 269 other people boarded a plane to Los Angeles. What happened next haunts Chicago to this day.

Photos: (airplane) Michael Laughlin; (Waxes) David M. Catherman

He was a ghost, in a way, the walking dead. Only he wasn’t dead, though he should have been, or would have been but for his own prescience.

In a frozen corner of a park at an intersection in Des Plaines, he stood blowing into his hands before a knee-high wall made of bricks, each of which bore a name — his friends, some of them. In the distance, blue-gray against the gauzy white of a February day, the long body of a passenger jet floated up like a phantom, nosing its way into the pale sky, climbing, climbing, and vanishing. But the man, hands in his pockets now, was looking down and didn’t notice.

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Judith Wax felt under the weather. It was an unfortunate bit of timing, given her plans for the following afternoon, Friday, May 25, 1979. Along with her husband, Sheldon, she was taking a trip to Los Angeles for the American Booksellers Association convention, one of the biggest publishing events of the year. More important to her, she was not going as a plus-one of her beloved Shel, who, as managing editor of Playboy magazine, made the trip each year. At 47, she was going as a bona fide author with a bona fide hit of her own. Her first book, the memoir Starting in the Middle (a rumination on middle age that “polishes the pearls of anxiety,” as Kirkus Reviews described it), had been published just a few weeks earlier and had already earned a measure of commercial and critical success. Having ascended the local bestsellers list, it was beginning to attract national attention. Bidding for paperback rights had begun.

Thus, the gentle encouragement of her friend Christine Newman over the phone that Thursday night: “You should go.” Newman would be there. A fact-checker at Playboy who would later work as a literary editor at Chicago magazine, Newman had booked a morning flight from Chicago to L.A. to beat the long registration lines and get the lay of the land before the conference started in the afternoon.

Not to worry. Judy would go, despite feeling sick and despite suffering from a fear of flying so bad that her “head trembled,” as she described it, from takeoff to landing. This was too important. For the better part of two decades, she had longed to be a writer. Being a “hearthkeeper” (Judy’s word) and raising her two children, Claudia and Paul, had consumed much of her time. But it was her self-doubt that had kept her from doing, she stated in Starting in the Middle, “what I most feared, desperately wanted, and never had the nerve to try.” It had been only five years since she’d taken the leap: At age 42, when her son joined the Hare Krishna movement and her daughter went to college, Judy “went to the typewriter,” as she put it.

She scored big with her very first effort: a Chaucerian send-up of the Watergate scandal called “The Waterbury Tales.” Original and cleverly cutting, the piece was published in both Time and the New Republic, as well as newspapers around the country. She suddenly found herself in demand as an essayist, writing for publications ranging from the New York Times to Newsweek. The month before her trip to Los Angeles, she’d published the second of two articles for Chicago about her adventures as a serial eavesdropper, showcasing her witty, dexterous prose. “You’d hate dining out with me,” she wrote. “I am, it seems, consigned by an obsessional neurosis to go through life with my ear as the next table’s centerpiece.”

Shel and Judy Wax
Shel and Judy met at Syracuse and quickly bonded over their shared intellectual tastes and wry senses of humor. Photos: (Sheldon) Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times; (Judith) Bill Frantz/Courtesy of Playboy

Judith Wax, snooper, mother, dreamer, wore a bob with bangs that framed a face bearing a resemblance to one of her contemporaries, Jane Fonda. “Voracious, greedy, insatiable, in the best sense of those words” is how one friend characterized her. And no doubt those qualities drew Sheldon to her. His silvered hair was habitually combed to the side, and his thick eyebrows and plump mustache contributed to his perpetual expression of wry amusement, which matched his buttoned-up, old-school, Elements of Style inclination. Shel, 51, could not have been more delighted by his wife’s late-blooming success as a writer.

They had met in 1949 when Judy was an 18-year-old freshman at Syracuse University and Shel was a senior, a 22-year-old ex-GI from Brooklyn “whose eyebrows,” Judy marveled, “looked just like Tyrone Power’s.” They were in love from the start, partly because of their shared intellectual tastes. (“Went out with someone WONDERFUL! His name is Sheldon Wax, and we talked about Khafke all evening!” Judy wrote on a postcard to her mother, apparently too excited to spell the absurdist novelist’s name correctly.)

They were married within two years. He was cerebral: “His idea of passionate declaration is, ‘I like you more than life itself,’ ” wrote Judy. She, on the other hand, ran hot, given at times to “virulent attacks of sentimentality.” For one of the couple’s annual Valentine’s Day parties, she dressed their dog as Cupid. For herself, she created a red-and-white ruffle-necked dress, complete with an “under-the-bosom sash that cries out for Tricia Nixon.” Shel (“my wise-ass valentine”) suggested hanging her in the window so guests could play “Guess Which Is the Hostess and Which Are the Draperies.”

Ensconced in a Victorian townhouse on North Cleveland Avenue, they were not a socialite couple. The closest they came was Judy’s lunches at the Brewery on Broadway with a group of friends who called themselves — “with conscious irony” — the Old Girls’ Network. Nor did the Waxes consider themselves a literary power couple — though Shel saw his position as managing editor at Playboy, where “he was a traffic cop over a bunch of very talented, unruly editors” as his dream job, says Barbara Nellis, one of those editors. He had joined the magazine in 1960, at the start of its heyday, working as an associate editor before becoming managing editor in 1972. The day of the L.A. flight, Shel, ever scrupulous, called one of the Playboy staffers, David Standish, just before leaving for the airport, a last-second prodding of the articles editor to make deadline on a story.

Shel wasn’t as nervous about flying as his wife, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable either, despite having frequently made the trip from Chicago to L.A. to huddle with Hef and scout new writing talent. He confessed as much to Tribune columnist Bob Greene, whom Shel once ran into on a flight home. When the captain would click on his mic and invite passengers to watch the takeoff on a closed-circuit screen at the front of the cabin, as American Airlines did in those days, Shel would look away.

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“I don’t do this,” he told Greene, who was seated next to him.

“What?” the columnist asked.

“Watch,” he replied. “It just makes me nervous. I think this is an invention we could do without.”

And so it was on a clear, bright Friday that the couple arrived at O’Hare International Airport. They checked their bags, walked together to Gate K-5, and, along with 256 other passengers, buckled into their bucket seats, which were arranged mostly in rows of nine, broken up by two aisles, in the wide-bodied jumbo jet.

In addition to Shel and Judy, two other Playboy staffers had decided to take American Flight 191 that afternoon. One was Mary Sheridan, a director with the company’s international publications division. The other was fiction editor Vicky Chen Haider. It would be one of first times she’d be away from her 1-year-old son, Sean, who was with her husband, Syed, visiting family in Texas. Also on the flight: music manager Leonard Stogel, who handled the Cowsills and Tommy James and the Shondells, among other groups; scientist Itzhak “Ben” Bentov, inventor of the steerable cardiac catheter; and Francis Gemme, president of Children’s Press in Chicago.

 

The DC-10’s engines whined to life, the metallic shriek rising and falling like the revving of an enormous dental drill. Eleven minutes behind schedule for a 2:45 p.m. departure, the plane pushed back from the gate, then bumped across the bridge spanning O’Hare’s access road. The plane nosed its way to the end of its assigned runway, 32 Right, and there stood trembling with restrained power.

At 3:01 p.m., the DC-10 paused for an incoming plane. A minute later, Walter Lux, the 52-year-old captain, got the go-ahead to take off:

“American 191. Turn right heading 330,” the air traffic control tower radioed. “Cleared for takeoff 32R. No delay.”

“American 191 under way,” Lux responded.

The turbofan shriek grew louder and the aircraft nudged forward. Momentarily motionless at the runway’s edge, it then began rolling, rolling, picking up takeoff speed.

“There’s 80 knots,” said Lux.

“OK,” answered his copilot, James Dillard, who was doing the actual flying.

The jet now roared at 175 miles an hour — 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 feet down the 10,000-foot runway.

Almost simultaneously, on a runway nearby, William Warke’s flight was touching down. From his window seat, he watched the landscape spool by: the crisscrossing runways and darting luggage trucks, the beacon-waving ground crew, earmuffs clamped to their heads.

A failure analyst for Standard Oil, Warke was also a shutterbug. He had his 35 mm camera on his lap, figuring he might snap a few photos of planes taking off. Spotting Flight 191 starting its run, he brought the camera to his eye. As the jumbo jet accelerated, he saw a flash, followed by a trail of white smoke pouring from the plane as it neared liftoff. What was that? he wondered. Did that jet just hit a vehicle? Something had happened. The jet, now almost 7,000 feet down the runway, heaved itself sluggishly into the air. Warke started clicking his camera. For a few moments, it looked like everything was OK. The jet’s wings leveled as it climbed to a few hundred feet. But when it began to bank severely, Warke knew the plane was damaged and in trouble. He could barely speak.

Watching from an O’Hare tower, Edward Rucker, the air traffic controller charged with tracking 191’s departure, had noticed something both extraordinary and terrifying just before takeoff: The jet’s left engine had broken loose, tumbled over one of the wings, then smashed onto the runway with a bounce and a skid.

Knowing he’d lost one of his three engines but unable to see precisely what had happened, Dillard slowed the aircraft and put it into a steep climb. For a few moments, the wings leveled, and then …

“Damn,” the copilot said into his headset.

In the tower, Rucker was less understated. “Look at this! Look at this!” he shouted to others in the control room, his voice captured on his headset radio. “He blew up an engine! Equipment. We need equipment. He blew an engine.”

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The voice of a pilot in a passing Cessna crackled through: “Oh shit.”

“American, uh, 191,” Rucker radioed, “do you want to come back — and to what runway?”

One second, two seconds, three.

Silence.

“He’s not talking to me,” Rucker said.

Twenty seconds into the flight, Dillard’s earlier decision to decrease speed — as called for in such emergencies — had unintentionally put the plane into a stall. Slowly, the plane began to rotate to the left 60 degrees, then a full 90 degrees, as the seat-belted passengers tilted atop one another.

“Yeah, he’s gonna lose a wing. Look at him,” Rucker said.

Alarms now clanged in the cockpit as Dillard struggled desperately to bring the DC-10 back to level.

Then the plane began to hurtle earthward.

“There he goes,” Rucker said. “There he goes.”

As the plane plunged downward, it kept rotating — past the point of perpendicular, 112 degrees now — toward a sickening almost belly-up position.

Just 4,600 feet past the runway’s edge, Flight 191 vanished into the ground, replaced by a 100-foot orange-black fireball billowing up.

 

Laurence Gonzales was part of a new breed hired at Playboy — young, brash, aggressive. He wore bell-bottoms and open shirts, long hair and sideburns, a look that nettled Sheldon Wax — he of the crisply ironed white shirt and tie and the by-the-book grammar and the original “men’s entertainment” ethos that had formed the foundation of Hugh Hefner’s empire — but also amused him.

“We all smoked dope and wore jeans,” recalls Standish, another in that group. “We were pushing for harder stories and pushing against Vietnam and [pressing for articles about] the sexual revolution and a lot of social and cultural issues that all of us in our early to mid-20s believed in.” Shel, he says, “would just look at us like, Oh God. But we were performing well enough that he liked our work. He just didn’t love our style.”

Gonzales arrived as a 24-year-old staff writer in 1972, the year Shel became managing editor, and climbed the ladder to become articles editor. He left Playboy in 1978 to pursue writing full-time but still had a close relationship with the magazine and continued to write for it.

In fact, it was Shel who urged Gonzales, who was 31 by now, to join him at the L.A. book conference. And Gonzales had good reason: His first book, Jambeaux, a novel loosely based on his experiences as a musician, was coming out that fall.

Before Gonzales committed, however, he did what he always did: He looked up what type of jet they’d be flying.

While at Playboy, Gonzales had become fascinated with airplane disasters — in particular, two involving McDonnell Douglas’s DC-10. One, just outside Paris in 1974, killed all 346 on board after a cargo door blew out, collapsing the cabin floor and severing the hydraulics that allowed the pilots to steer. A similar blowout had happened two years earlier, though that crippled plane was able to land.

Gonzales’s interest stemmed from his father, Federico, the son of a Mexican immigrant who served as a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II. When the wing of his plane was shot off by German antiaircraft fire, 27,000 feet up in the air, he miraculously survived the crash, though most of his bones were broken and he was taken prisoner.

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His son was nevertheless drawn to the cockpit and started flying in 1973 — two years before he wrote his first piece on aviation safety for Playboy. He even trained as an instructor but never bothered to take the certification test.

So the de facto expert’s response to Shel when he learned that Flight 191 was a DC-10? “I’m not going to get on that plane.”

“You’ve been reading too much crap,” Shel said.

What Gonzales had been reading about the DC-10 was not crap. Specifically, he’d learned how McDonnell Douglas was in dire financial straits and had set up an incentive program to save money at virtually any cost.

No thanks. He’d stay home.

That Friday afternoon in May 1979, Gonzales was giving a former Playboy colleague a lift when the first news report came over the radio: A plane had crashed not far from O’Hare.

Gonzales raced home and turned on the television to discover that it was an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles. The fire was still raging at the crash site, a field in Des Plaines just behind a trailer park. “Holy shit,” Gonzales blurted to his wife. And then: “Was that the flight that Shel and Judy and Vicky and Mary were on?”

Gonzales grabbed his car keys.

Christine Newman, already in Los Angeles, was oblivious to the crash for much of the day — so much so that she didn’t notice that conference organizers had quietly taken down a poster for Judy’s book. When she finally made it to her hotel room, she turned on the TV. The images flickered by in an unending stream of horror: firefighters and rescue workers walking through a hellscape of smoking rubble, small red, yellow, and black flags flapping from four-foot-high metal stakes marking bodies and pieces of bodies. She felt a wave of shock, panic, disbelief, nausea, “like I was going insane,” she says. “When they started rolling the list of victims on TV, I just went berserk.”

Judy. Shel. Dead. It just couldn’t be. The next thought: her parents. They would be wondering if she was on the flight. She picked up the hotel phone and dialed them in Tennessee. No, she told them, she had taken an earlier flight. She was alive.

 
The crash site
Flags marked the location of crash victims as firefighters searched the wreckage. Photo: Jay Needleman/Chicago Tribune

Rushing to the scene in his BMW, Gonzales went first to the trailer park. News helicopters hovered overhead while rescue workers stood helplessly and ambulances waited for the nonexistent injured.

Metal shards and flames had leveled one of the trailers, and Gonzales spotted a massive piece of the fuselage, taller than he was, in the middle of the street.

A police car pulled up near him. Gonzales produced a press pass. “I’m here to report on this,” he told the officers. It was the truth. Already he knew he would be writing about the disaster.

“Well, get in,” one of the officers said. “We’ll take you over to the crash site.” Soon, Gonzales was gazing out at what had once been a verdant field of grass and scrub oak and cornflowers, now a 100-yard-wide swath of scorched earth that looked like it had been leveled by a napalm strike. He spotted the half-collapsed husk of one of Flight 191’s engines, the silver and white of the turbine charred black. He saw the wheel assembly, likewise seared and smoldering.

The smell of burning jet fuel and flesh, “like ancient lamp oil and burned insulation,” he would later write, filled his nostrils. Fire engines, their hoses deployed, appeared and vanished like giant red ghosts in the smoke. Every emergency vehicle within 50 miles must be here, he thought. By now, the fire was under control. He stayed just on the fringe, looking in disbelief and wondering, for the first time, how many had died on this spot. Hundreds. Including his friends. All there.

In newsrooms around the country, the numbers coming in were grim: The crash had killed all 258 passengers and 13 crew members on board and two more people on the ground. It was the worst aviation accident in U.S. history and remains so today.

Three months later, long after investigators had recovered the fragments they needed, Gonzales returned to the crash site. No grass had grown there. Thousands of pounds of kerosene will do that. “If you look closely,” he wrote in Playboy, “you can see that thousands upon thousands of pieces of white wire are embedded in the rich, black mud that sticks to your shoes as you walk along. The strands are buried deeply, as if by unimaginable force, and when you pull on them, bits of metal come out of the ground. … There are rivets and bolts, nuts and doublers and a few hefty remnants as big as a man’s hand. Suddenly, it dawns on you that this is not merely a bald, scarred patch of mud.” It was a gravesite.

Gonzales collected a few pieces. Not for himself. For Syed Haider, the husband of his friend Vicky, one of those bodies marked by a stake topped with a little flag.

 

With all the horrors and tragedies that befall cities around the world, few such events remain seared in our memories. And so for many, the crash of Flight 191 may not be as indelible as, say, the Oklahoma City bombing or Hurricane Katrina. But for Chicagoans who were here then, it was traumatizing — and still haunts those directly affected. Jane Byrne, Chicago’s mayor at the time and one of the first officials on the scene, described it as “probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Sometimes you scream in silence,” Greene wrote in the Tribune three days after the crash. “Sheldon Wax … was a nice man, and I am trying not to think about the fact that he is not a living man anymore, but a collection of wretched, anonymous body parts sealed in a bag in a hangar at O’Hare that is serving as a temporary morgue.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the city mourned. Memorial services were held. At one of them, five days after the crash, more than 300 people packed the Arts Club of Chicago, then housed at 109 East Ontario Street, to honor Judy and Sheldon Wax. Among them, Arthur Kretchmer, Playboy’s editorial director, paid tribute to Shel’s quirks, including how he was always singing the first stanza — and only the first stanza — to the jazz standard “The Carioca” at work:

Say, have you seen a Carioca?
It’s not a foxtrot or a polka
It has a little bit of new rhythm, a blue rhythm that sighs

Stanley J. Hallet, a Methodist minister who was friends with the couple, read a memo penned by Shel, subject line “Bureau of Missing Persons,” that seemed to perfectly capture his wryness: “Gee willikers, gang, here I am being beaten about the head because of the mountain of overtime charges the magazine has piled up due to lateness and when I look around in the morning for someone to discuss them with, I wind up talking to myself. Not that I don’t find the conversation brilliant, but I’d much prefer other voices in the room.”

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The memo ends: “You’d be surprised to discover how clean the air is at that hour.”

A friend of Judy’s, Pat Rahmann, recalled her love of writing and a line she wrote that particularly struck Rahmann: “You can’t catch a disease worse than loneliness.”

And then, closing the ceremony, a poem by Judy’s daughter, Claudia — “To My Mother and Father” — was read:

In one unutterable second
you have
vanished
and
left me with more
than I could want
to have
when knowing that
I look
a bit like both of you
is
suddenly enough

 

Over the next few months, investigators pieced together what went wrong with Flight 191, including why the jet, capable of being flown with only two of its three engines, nonetheless went down after just 31 seconds in the air. The investigation culminated with the release of an accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board four days before Christmas of that year.

Sabotage was ruled out. As was pilot error. Lux and Dillard had followed emergency procedures to the letter.

As Gonzales would describe in his piece for Playboy, NTSB investigators concluded that the cause was a shortcut by American Airlines mechanics. Specifically, after an across-the-fleet replacement of a faulty engine pylon, they had used a forklift to reconnect engines to their wings, when a more precise crane was needed. The forklift, however, was faster and therefore cheaper.

Eight weeks before the crash, workers had used a forklift on Flight 191’s left engine. Over time, with the vibrations of each flight, the extra stress from the procedural shortcut caused a small crack in the flange securing the engine to the wing. The crack eventually grew to nearly 13 inches. When the plane reached takeoff speed that day, the engine simply snapped off, rolling up and over the left wing. In the process, it ripped away part of the leading edge of the wing, cutting the hydraulic lines and power to vital instruments in the cockpit, including communications with the control tower and, most crucially, the stall warning.

Had Lux and Dillard known the plane was stalling, they could have increased its speed the moment it began to roll, rather than following standard protocol, which called for them to slow the aircraft. During subsequent NTSB testing, not one of 13 pilots in simulations re-creating the circumstances was able to save the plane.

In the aftermath, all U.S. DC-10 jets were grounded until the issues could be addressed. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997, ended production of the jets because of a lack of demand.

 
Laurence Gonzales
Laurence Gonzales at the memorial wall near the crash site Photo: Lucy Hewett

The man, breath smoking, crunched through the snow to the northwest corner of Lee Street and Touhy Avenue. His hair was white now, and he wasn’t quite sure he was in the right place, but the longtime investigative journalist would not be discouraged. He wound up finding what he was looking for: the low wall of bricks bearing the names of the dead from Flight 191. It had been nearly 40 years since he’d stood on the edge of the field northwest of Runway 32R, driven the streets of the trailer park, noted the place where the grass no longer grew. But scarcely a day had gone by that he had not given thought to what happened here. The brick wall — half hidden by trees, the plaque at its center reading “We Remember Flight 191” — had appeared only relatively recently. It had taken more than 30 years for someone to come up with the idea, then two years of lobbying by an assistant principal and students in the 2010 sixth-grade class at Decatur Classical School in West Rogers Park to get the memorial approved. The assistant principal’s parents had been on the flight.

The man, now 71, tried to find the bricks bearing the names of Judith and Sheldon Wax, but they were hidden by frozen snow. It was enough for him to be near the site. Feel it. Again.

Still, it hit him. His name could easily have been on a brick. But he wasn’t thinking about that now, nor the flight that moved past overhead, just south of him, big enough, it seemed, to reach out and touch. The plane kept rising and then vanished.

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