Dorothy Dubinski was working her shift at A&P on a cold, drizzly afternoon Dec. 8, 1972, when the foreman told her there had been a terrible accident and offered to drive her home immediately.
The twisted wreckage of a plane sat on top of 3722 W. 70th Place where her family's bungalow had stood. Dubinski's 70-year-old mother, Veronica Cuculich, and sister, Theresa, 37, were on the porch counting change when a Boeing 737 fell from the sky, killing the two women and 43 passengers and crew.
"I cried until I couldn't cry anymore," said Dubinski, now 80. "I lost everything that day, everything."
Forty years later, the saga of United Flight 553, en route from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Omaha, Neb., is still painful to family members and survivors. Those killed included Dorothy Hunt, wife of Watergate plotter E. Howard Hunt; U.S. Rep. George Collins, who represented a district on the city's West Side; and CBS news correspondent Michelle Clark.
Some of the 18 survivors dealt with lifelong injuries, while others escaped relatively unscathed. But everyone was changed by the tragedy, one of the worst in Chicago aviation history.
The National Transportation Safety Board ultimately ruled that the accident was due to pilot error. On its descent into Chicago, the plane had missed its first approach and was attempting a second landing when it struck some trees, crashing just 11/2 miles from Midway Airport.
Marguerite McCausland, a then-37-year-old flight attendant, recalled that the roofs of the houses in the working-class neighborhood started getting ominously closer and closer.
"All I can remember is someone saying, 'We're going to crash,'" said McCausland, who now lives in the Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn, Va.
After the impact, McCausland thought she was trapped in a very bad dream. "I couldn't move, I had hot metal on me. ... I could hear a baby crying, choking and then nothing."
When emergency personnel arrived, she mustered every ounce of her strength to yell for help. Finally, one of the firefighters called, "Someone is alive here!" They cut her out of the twisted wreckage, putting a cloth over her face to protect her from sparks. Twenty minutes later, the flight attendant was loaded onto a stretcher, the only survivor in the front half of the aircraft.
"I knew everyone was gone. ... If the fire didn't get them, the smoke did."
Her husband, Bob, heard the news on the radio and dashed to Chicago from suburban Washington, where McCausland was hospitalized for two weeks with third-degree burns, a broken wrist, a crushed thigh and two shattered ankles. Later, she flew back to a medical facility closer to home, where she would spend three months.
Harold Metcalf, a 34-year-old federal narcotics agent and a passenger aboard Flight 553, rarely talked about the event, according to his widow, Judith. He had to fly frequently for his job — but he always carried a piece of the Flight 553 fuselage, which he had made into a key chain.
"He thought the odds of that piece of metal going down twice were pretty small," she said of her husband, who died in 2007.
Dubinski, whose German shepherd, Sapphire, also was killed by the crash, rebuilt her family's home on the same lot and lives there today. She plans to mark the 40th anniversary of the crash as she always does. "With my prayers," she said.
After the accident, rumors of sabotage swirled around the ill-fated aircraft. Dorothy Hunt was carrying $10,000 in cash on the flight, rumored to be a payoff for the Watergate burglars, according to news accounts.
The presence on the plane of Clark, the CBS journalist, only stoked allegations of foul play by some who believed she was about to expose the White House's involvement in the scandal that eventually drove President Richard Nixon from office.
Even today, some don't believe the NTSB's conclusions about the crash.
David Kent, a co-founder of a group called Midway Historians, is skeptical for a number of reasons, including the experience of the crew.
"You had an impeccable pilot ... with one of the best records and highest number of hours," Kent said. "This guy did not make mistakes. There are just a lot more questions than answers."
McCausland was too busy trying to get well to be distracted by the conspiracy chatter at the time. She returned to United as an office employee and then left the industry altogether, returning to school to study computer information. She stayed in touch with the firefighter who rescued her, John "Duke" O'Malley, who after retiring had a second career as an outdoor columnist with the Southtown Star until his death in 2011.
"For a long time, I was terribly angry ... and then I felt lucky," McCausland said. "You realize how fragile life is and how very quickly it can all be taken from you."