In 1972, 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 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."
JULY 17, 1955
On Sunday morning, a Braniff Airways airliner coming in too low hit a patch of dense fog that apparently confused the pilot enough for him to lose control of the plane. The craft hit the top of an 18-foot gas station sign at 55th Street and Central Avenue, bounced off 55th Street, and shedding parts as it went, plowed through the airport's boundary fence before flipping over and skidding to a stop on the tarmac.
The firefighters who rushed to the scene found a 6-year-old girl, unscathed, wandering around the wreckage. "What happened?" she asked. "There's been an accident," a firefighter answered, telling her to go to sit in a nearby ambulance.
That young girl was Nancy Borneman, now Nancy Prince, who contacted Flashback to tell her story about the Midway crash 57 years ago. It was not a happy tale. Her family's tragedy was related in a Page 1 story the day after the accident, which killed 22 people and injured 21.
Her mother was thrown from the plane and killed. Her father, waiting in the terminal for the delayed flight, took a cab from the terminal to the crash site, walked through the ripped-up fence and found his wife's body. Somebody had stolen her rings.
Nancy's older sister, Janet, 11, suffered severe injuries to her back and leg when her seat was ripped loose. She had to be extricated from the plane wreckage.
Prince, who now lives in Junction City, Wis., doesn't remember the crash itself. She told Flashback of waking upside down in her seat. Of calling for her mother. Of crawling out of the wreckage. Of talking to the firefighter.
She said she spent weeks at the hospital, apparently held for observation. The sisters asked for their mother, but nobody would tell them what happened.
"When they said she passed away, I didn't know what that meant," Prince said.
The accident would have an ongoing, lasting impact on their lives. Their father, George Borneman, who had been an accountant, tried his hand selling real estate because the flexible hours allowed him to better care for his daughters. Eventually he remarried, entered the seminary, was ordained and became a prominent advocate for the homeless.
Janet Laub, of Fort Collins, Colo., went into teaching. She said she still is terrified of flying, though she doesn't let that stop her. She visits Chicago often with her sister but only flies in and out of O'Hare International Airport. Of Midway, she said, "I think that airport should be closed."
Prince said her experience in the 1955 crash led her to become a nurse. "I had good nurses that took care of me," she said. "And they gave the best back rubs."
Prince, now a grandmother, said she feels very lucky. "I've always felt there was a reason I made it through that, which kind of leads to the nursing. I want to give back."
Editor's note: Thanks to Marion Kowalski, of Chicago Ridge; Jeffrey Kozinski, of Mokena, and Nancy Prince, of Junction City, Wis., for suggesting different aspects of this Flashback.
Midway Airport plane crashes
May 31, 1936: A TWA airliner carrying 15 people hits a tree and house but manages to land in an empty lot near the airport. All 15 survive.
Dec. 4, 1940: A United Airlines plane crashes into a house at 6350 S. Keating Ave. Eight aboard the plane are killed.
May 20, 1943: All 12 servicemen aboard an Army B-24 bomber die in a massive explosion after the plane hits a giant gas storage tank at 3625 W. 73rd St.
March 10, 1948: Twelve people are killed, but one survives when a Delta Air Lines flight crashes in a field north of the airport.
Jan. 4, 1951: The pilot of a twin-engine plane carrying 49 manages to guide his crashing plane between two homes before hitting a chicken house and haystacks at 58th Street and Massassoit Avenue. All survive.
Sept. 16, 1951: All 53 people survive when a plane crashes into a field near Archer Road and 61st Street.
July 17, 1955: A Braniff Airways crash at the northwest corner of the airport kills 22 people and injures 21.
Aug. 5, 1955: A pilot is again credited when 68 people survive a crash landing in the same area as the Braniff accident.
Nov. 24, 1959: Twelve people, including nine on the ground, are killed when a TWA cargo flight plows into homes southeast of the field.
Dec. 8, 1972: Forty-five people die when a United jet crashes into bungalows on West 70th Place. Eighteen aboard the plane survive.
Aug. 6, 1976: A converted WWII B-25 bomber drops onto two houses west of the airport. Two in the plane and a woman on the ground are killed.
Dec. 8, 2005: A Southwest Airlines plane landing in a snowstorm skids off the runway, smashing into cars on Central Avenue and killing a 6-year-old boy in a car.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun