Updated: May 17
Note - "Safe Landing: A Family's Journey Following the Crash of American Airlines Flight 191" follows three siblings' incredible journey over the last 40+ years grieving their parents' sudden loss, coming together as a family, and working hard to honor the lives of all 273 lost on Flight 191. It's an inspirational Chicago story about love, family, and how tragedy gets a big word, but it never gets the final word. It's available for purchase here in our Long Overdue bookstore
As the stewardess made final take-off announcements, I looked to my right and left. Every time I’ve flown since that fateful day, I have the same ritual; I count the seconds as the plane increases speed down the runway.
Thirty-one seconds. This was the amount of time the DC-10 airplane was in the air before losing its left engine and crashing in a field north of the runway. The crash’s impact was so intense there was little left of those on the flight, and debris was scattered everywhere. All 271 passengers and crew on board and two individuals on the ground lost their lives.
A DC-10 was broken apart, lives were lost, and all the lives of families and friends would be forever altered after the crash of American Airlines Flight 191. It is still the worst non-terrorist-related crash in American history.
Yet there we were, 25 years later, clicking our seat belts on an American Airlines flight. Along with our families, my sister and I were off to witness our brother Jim’s wedding in Hawaii. This was the same destination our parents (known as “Nudy” and Bill) left for on May 25th, 1979.
In September of 1978, I was 29-years-old, single, and managing one of the most popular late-night bars in all of Chicago. I shared a very large apartment with a college friend on the “Near North” side, just steps away from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. In Chicago, proximity to the lake is everything.
I’d become a serious runner competing almost every weekend in 10k races around the city. I’d been training for several years to compete in the new Mayor Daley Marathon (later called the Chicago Marathon). I finished my first marathon with a respectable time of 3 hours, 29 minutes. Not bad for my first time!
But the highlight of the day occurred at the 18-mile mark. This is a critical point in a marathon when many runners “hit the wall.” As I approached the 18-mile marker, Mom and Dad were there to cheer me on. They were easy to spot in the sizable crowd because “Nudy” was doing a headstand! Needless to say, I picked up the pace, and I’m sure I had a big grin on my face for the next several miles.
Headstand in a crowd of people? That was just a typically eccentric and supportive act we were all accustomed to as the children of Nudy and Bill.
One of my fondest memories of Mom standing on her head was in 8th grade. Our family was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a local restaurant in our parish called Deasy’s. The owner was a rather stern Irishman but was fond of Nudy, as all the adults called her. Mom gave me a “head’s up” that the owner had asked her to stand on her head as part of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Mom told me she’d be wearing a taffeta green dress and was going to let her skirt fall to display a ruffled green undergarment with a shamrock on her backside. She wanted me to be prepared when her skirt fell in front of a couple hundred parishioners. Don’t worry, it’s all planned.
Needless to say, as a teenager with some of my classmates present, I was slightly embarrassed. But I was proud of how Mom could do something this crazy with style and grace.
Or how about this one time after a Cubs game. If my memory serves me right, the game went into extra innings, and, back then, there was no cut-off for beers served at Wrigley Field. The raucous crowd was in full party mode.
After the game, we all went across the street to the Sports Corner at Sheffield and Addison for additional cheers and fun. We were all singing and dancing and then, next thing you know, Melody, Mom, and I were standing on our heads on top of the bar! The place went wild!
No other moms I knew during the ’50s were focusing on yoga. Mom taught us the lotus position and the infamous headstand. We would be at picnics with other families, she would clap her hands, and then, like a performing circus, we would all go stand on our heads. All the other kids and adults would try this out, and then Mom would help them learn the proper technique.
Mom and Dad were both very personable and easy to know to the outside world. Dad was genuinely easy-going. He was always there to help, whether taking kids waiting at bus stops to school or helping at our parish with various requests. He would also help neighbors and friends with any breakdowns in their homes. When I was a youngster, I truly felt there wasn’t anything Dad couldn’t fix or do.
Mom had a much stronger personality, yet she was very likable and fun. The only exception was when things weren’t done to her specifications. That’s when her Irish temper would come out. I grew up knowing Mom was not afraid to stand up for you if it was deserved. She always had your back.
And perhaps the most memorable (and most mysterious) example of Mom having my back was in January of 1979 when Mom wrote me a letter commemorating my 32nd birthday. This letter would ultimately guide my life for decades to come.
Mom often wrote notes on cards, but this was a 2-page typed letter. I can’t remember her ever writing something like this before. In this letter, she shared many thoughts. She gave me directions on taking care of our family when she was no longer around or able. She stressed the importance of having patience and always making the effort to get the family together.
I knew Mom had a few reservations about this second honeymoon trip, but this was the first time she talked about her mortality, at least to me. I remember reading her letter and thinking I wouldn’t have to worry about these things for many, many years.
Little did I know, this letter would be read at their memorial service, and become my personal directive only four months later:
I guess that’s what I’m trying to say in this note, I will keep on getting us together as long as God gives me the strength. After I can no longer do this, or yes after I’m gone, I would like you to take the torch, my firstborn, and keep on trying to get them together, not only for the fun of it, but also for the love of it. Maybe one day not so far in the future, both Kim and Jim will be married and you will have a whole gang to round up.
Please remember my request and try to comply. It will take patience on your part, but I know you can do it Mel. I don’t have too much to leave the three of you except my love for all of you and my pride in all of you and I hope that carries over to your children and their children.
Your Loving Mom,
Mom and Dad’s house at 5508 N. California Avenue is a significant part of our story. It was the one and only home we all had known.
Mom and Dad built their home on the GI Bill in 1946, as Dad had served on an LST in World War II. That house became such a touchstone or home base for all of us. In my mind, it would always be there, always be “home.” No matter what else was going on in our lives, good or bad, we could always go home.
As Mel and I were now out of the house, and Kim would soon be once she graduated college, the gatherings at 5508 N. California became more and more important. We grew up with every holiday, birthday, graduation, and what my parents called “Red Letter Days” celebrated there. That house was an absolute, a given which you could always count on.
Mom coined the term “Red Letter Day.” These were positive and meaningful days in our lives – birthdays, holidays, dance recitals, sports championships, good grades – these were all “Red Letter Days!”
I remember preparations for my birthday parties were almost as fun as the actual day. Mom included me when deciding the party's theme along with making the decorations, party favors, and games or activities. With my birthday being in January, there were a lot of winter themes — snowmen, ice skating, etc.
It was rare for a month to go by without some type of party in our family.
I was the youngest of us three, still living at home with Mom and Dad. That year, 1979, was shaping up to be a big year in my life. I was completing my bachelor’s degree to become a teacher and was to be married on June 2nd.
Sometime around late summer, early fall of 1978, I decided to call off the wedding. The decision, as I recall, was mutual. We gave our best shot at a long-distance romance, but, in my heart, I knew that as much as we were crazy about each other at the onset of meeting, I didn’t want to move to Boston, and my then-fiancé, Michael, was not thrilled about a move to Chicago. Plus, I was excited about starting my student teaching and graduating. We canceled the banquet hall, but not the church.
At first, Mom was very disappointed. She was crazy about my Irish fiancé. And, for someone who had as much fun as she did planning birthday parties, imagine what she could do with a wedding! When Mom eventually came to terms with the cancellation (harder for her than for me!), she insisted we should all go on a trip. But as we looked at calendars, Mom and Dad decided to take an overdue second honeymoon trip to Hawaii, and I booked a trip to Mexico with my friends.
I ended up on a very early flight to Acapulco, Mexico with two girlfriends, Colleen and Kathy. This was May 23rd, two days before my parents boarded American Airlines Flight 191. Ironically, I was staying at a beach resort owned by American Airlines.
Our first day of arrival was unpacking, getting the lay of the land, and heading out for dinner and drinks. While enjoying the Acapulco nightlife, we ran into John, a friend of my brother’s who was vacationing as well, staying one resort over from ours. I’m pretty sure we all stayed up until sunrise.
But, even though we were 23-years-old and full of all that youthful energy, we still decided to catch up on sleep poolside, soaking in as much of the Mexican sun as possible.
On May 25th, I felt a strange sensation come over me out of nowhere. It’s difficult to explain how I felt as a wave of nausea and faintness riveted through my body. I remember telling Colleen I thought I better go back to our room to lay down. Probably too much sun, Mexican water, and fun the night before. She decided to return for a nap as well, resting up for our evening plans. We both laid down and fell asleep. I’m not sure how long we’d been napping when our hotel phone rang.
It was a clear and sunny yet cool day for the beginning of a Memorial Day weekend. This year would be different since Mom and Dad, who always had the first picnic of the summer on Memorial Day weekend, were breaking from tradition with their trip to Hawaii. This was just the third vacation they’d taken, as a couple, in 33 years of marriage.
Mom called at 9:00 AM to say goodbye, and I was just heading out the door for my morning jog. We talked general “happy talk” about enjoying themselves on this trip and how Dad was up at the crack of dawn, as he always was. The taxi would be picking them up at 10:30 AM.
Mom said she couldn’t believe they were finally going, as for months, the trip had been in a constant state of flux of going or not going. Mom still had reservations about it all. She felt guilty leaving us all on a major holiday. I kept reassuring her it was fine. I was 32. Jim was 29. Kim was 23. It was okay. But Mom would forever have excuses and was a bit of a worrier.
She even told me where she hid her jewelry in the basement! Hidden under a part of the ceiling. She talked about her funeral arrangements. I understand this type of thinking far better now in my 70s than I did at 32. At the time, I remember thinking it was ridiculous. I was a little annoyed, too, though I know Mom didn’t know it. But, in fairness, Mom had just lost a dear friend, and it upset her terribly. She was upset about the open casket and told me, during this last phone call, to only have the casket open at her wake, “if she looked good.” Otherwise, “you must have it closed, Mel.”
My son, Christopher, who was almost two and was just starting to talk, got on the phone as he started doing the last few months. That last call was the first time he said, “Hi, Grandma Nudy!” Mom was thrilled and said she couldn’t wait to get back and see him. She said by then he would be talking in full sentences. My husband, Bob, had taken the day off and was making signals to me to say goodbye so we could proceed with the things we were going to do that morning. He often did this as Mom and I talked to each other just about every day and could talk about everything and nothing for hours. I dismissed him and proceeded to talk to Dad, who said goodbye and shared how they were really excited about this trip (he didn’t have the same level of worries as Mom). I said goodbye, they said they’d call Jim next and that we would see them in 10 days.
My phone rang early the morning of May 25th. Dad told me I didn’t have to take them to the airport. They knew I’d worked late the night before, and they were headed out early via cab.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes!” Dad confirmed.
I told him to have a great trip, and I’d see them when they got back. I didn’t talk to Mom.
Later that day, I walked into the bar I managed to prepare banks and schedules for the night. I passed one television in the back of the bar as I headed upstairs. The image on the TV was of smoke in a field with the caption underneath:
“Plane Crash at O’Hare.”
At first, it didn’t really register. But as I sat there counting out money for the night registers, the TV image started to gnaw at me. I knew Mom and Dad were at the airport early, but I wasn’t sure of their flight time. To arrest my fears, I called Melody.
I couldn’t get hold of Melody and, back in 1979, there were no answering machines or cell phones. The only person I could think to call was Melody’s mother-in-law, Marge. Marge didn’t even know our parents were leaving, but she told me she’d try to get hold of Mel and Bob.
Melody called me shortly after, informing me that Mom and Dad’s flight was scheduled around 3 PM, but she was unsure of the airline. She was going to check with the travel agent and call me back.
I got off the phone and told Bob my fear that Mom and Dad were on that plane. I called American Airlines and said I wanted information on the crash. They just took my name and number. In the meantime, a very good friend of Mom and Dad called. She said she’d been trying to get a hold of us all day. She was frantic and felt, for sure, they were on that flight. I assured her I didn’t think so but had to get off the line because the airlines would be calling me back.
I remember sitting on our stairway in the hall and saying over and over, “I know they are on that flight. I know they are on that flight,” and just waiting. I called American again, and it was the same thing. They said they’d get back to me as soon as possible. I called Mom’s sister. She’d been out to dinner with Mom and Dad the night before. Maybe she would put my fears to rest. She didn’t think it could be true. Didn’t think they were on that flight.
I remember catching snatches of scenes of the crash on our TV. I was watching but not concentrating.
Then the travel agent called back and said your mom and dad were scheduled for the flight. American Airlines Flight 191.
I remember yelling, “Oh no! Are you sure?”
Bob took the phone to hear it for himself. I immediately called Jim. There was a lot of background noise at Jim’s bar, but I was able to communicate my thoughts, ones I was working through as I spoke.
Here’s what I knew:
The crash was American Airlines Flight 191.
This was the flight Mom and Dad were scheduled to be on.
There was still a chance they’d missed it, but because they’d left their house so early, that didn’t seem likely.
And, if they had missed it by some quirk, they would have called us to tell us they were safe by now.
“You’ve got to be sure, Melody,” Jim said, “don’t say this unless you are sure!”
I will never forget the agony in my brother’s voice.
“It cannot be!” he said. “I’m going out to the airport to find them, hold them, and comfort them.”
“Okay, please don’t forget about me. Call me and let me know what’s going on at the airport. I’ll stay home and wait for the phone call from the airline, actually confirming their deaths. Until then, we won’t give up hope.”
We both agreed we wouldn’t call Kim until it was officially confirmed. There was still the possibility that their travel agent had it wrong…
Bob called our friends with whom we were scheduled to have dinner later that evening. Coincidentally, our friend was an attorney for another airline. He said he would try and help us in any way since he was familiar with airline crashes and all the procedures and problems involved. Bob called his folks. They said they would come right over. I called my mom’s sister, Patty, and one of our best friends in the area to stay with our son, Christopher. And that was it. I wanted to keep our telephone line open.
Our friends knew and loved my folks. Mom and Dad were the kinds of people who easily bridged all age differences. Sure, they were my parents, but they had become my dear friends with whom I could completely be myself. I felt so fortunate that I'd reached that point in a child/parent relationship. As an adult, partying with Mom and Dad was very natural, and they always wanted me and Bob’s friends to come to their picnics, parties, and events.
I remember all those Sundays in late summer and early fall, Bob and I, plus two of our favorite couples, would meet Dad at the tennis courts and play round-robin games for hours. We’d go back to Mom and Dad’s house, where Mom had prepared a delicious lunch. We’d play backyard games like croquet or volleyball.
And, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. That was always a big deal before we had kids. We’d meet Mom and Dad at Johnny Lattner’s on the Chicago River with our friends for brunch, and then Dad would lead us to where they were staging the parade. We’d join in carrying our big Shamrock Irish Flag. This was when St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated on the actual day, and things were very loose on who was allowed to march in the parade.
Our friends loved Mom and Dad, so it was no surprise how supportive they were in those chaotic hours trying to gather information. I started getting more phone calls from Mom and Dad's friends, and the Murphys came right over. I wanted to keep things short and not say too much until we knew with 100 percent certainty that they were physically on Flight 191.
Bob’s parents arrived. I know Christopher must have been there, but I was really only aware of my own presence. I’m sure I was trying to make everyone feel comfortable, but I was getting myself under control internally. Deep down, I knew there would be many decisions to make.
But first things first. My brother called at about 8:00 PM. He was at the airport and said he’d been ushered into a VIP room. He was given no information other than a gruesome reminder that bodies were still being gathered. Jim said they were making a list of the passengers by comparing their actual list at check-in to their computer list.
As I talked to Jim, he said their names had just come up on the computer.
C. Borchers and W. Borchers were passengers on American Airlines Flight 191.
There it was. Final confirmation. What I knew at a gut level was now officially true.
“Bob and I will meet you at the airport,” I told Jim. Then I called Kim in Mexico.
“Kim, I have some bad news,” I said.
I gathered my breath, steadied my voice, and continued with the terrible news.
When I answered the phone, I thought it was probably John calling about getting together later. Instead, half asleep, I could hear my sister’s voice.
Am I still asleep? Why is she calling me?
“There has been a terrible accident, and Mom and Dad are dead,” Melody said. “They were killed in a plane crash.”
I had difficulty processing what she was saying, but the same wave of faintness and nausea I experienced by the pool earlier (which was right around the time of the crash) poured through my body. I couldn’t feel anything except my heart pounding.
Mom and Dad.
On the flight.
There are snippets of that night, most of it a blur. My body went into shock, and I was trembling, crying. Colleen found John at the resort next door, and he helped find a doctor to give me a sedative. Then my brother called, and I remember just saying, “No, it can’t be true!”
After his call, I remember looking out at a religious statue right outside our balcony. In my mind, I was trying to talk to Mom and Dad through the statue.
I don’t remember packing a bag or preparing to go back. I do remember the hotel initially saying there was no crash that they knew of, even though they were an American Airlines hotel.
The hotel made arrangements to get me back to Chicago.
Safe Landing: A Family's Journey Following the Crash of American Airlines Flight 191 begins with Melody Smith, Kim Jockl, and Jim Borchers' experience on that terrible day -- May 25th, 1979 -- and follows their incredible journey over the last 40+ years grieving their parents' sudden loss, coming together as a family, and leading the charge to create a memorial to honor all 273 people who lost their lives. It's an inspirational Chicago story about love, family, and how tragedy gets a big word, but it never gets the final word. Darkness can not overcome the light.