06/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering a Major Tragedy From 30 Years Ago at O'Hare Airport

It was late on a Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend in 1979 and we were all sitting around in the City Hall press room when word came down that a plane had crashed at O'Hare Airport.

I don't know why, except that maybe we were starting to get tired of the five-stories-a-day pace that Chicago's first woman mayor, Jane M. Byrne, created. But I remember telling my editor on the telephone that I wanted to go there to cover it.

I had seen crashes on television. But nothing came close to what I saw that afternoon after grabbing my car from a parking lot down the street and driving right to the crash scene just off Touhy Avenue in Elk Grove Village.

Flight 191 had taken off on May 25, the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day afternoon, for Los Angeles Airport. The American Airline DC-10 had some 271 passengers including 13 members of the flight crew.

Apparently, minutes into the flight, an engine broke and the plane came crashing down in a nearby field killing all the passengers and crew, and two people on the ground.

I remember the scene there when I arrived. There were dozens of fire trucks and police cars. Police and firemen were walking all around. There was still some heat from parts of the plane.

The field was strewn with litter. No one stopped me or a handful of other reporters from walking near the site, which had been cordoned off. But you could get right up close. Little flags -- I think colored orange -- marked spots where body remains had been found.

Eventually, the remains that could be found were taken to a makeshift morgue nearby in a hangar near the airport. Parts of the plane also were moved there, too.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had representatives at the site, too, and they were giving regular briefings. I scribbled what I could into my notebook, and wrote down some observations about the scene.

Readers knew there would be deaths. But seeing the carnage right there was shocking. I was afraid to walk around, thinking the area cordoned off wasn't complete.

Emergency personnel slowly sifted through the wreckage. Occasionally you would see them lift something from the ground. They'd group together, bend over. Looking like they were inspecting. A photograph would record the scene and then eventually it was removed.

I hate to say "it" because I might be talking about the remains of people.

I was surprised at how close I was able to get to the crash site. I remember driving on the shoulder to get through the afternoon rush hour traffic to get to the site. I parked on the side of the road and left a police media card in the window. I had a blue Camaro with t-tops that always got stolen until I removed the handles that unlocked them from their roof braces.

Thirty years ago is not like today. I didn't have a cell phone and I didn't have a video camera. In fact, I didn't have a camera at all, although I owned a nice Canon AE1, 35 MM, a good one for an amateur photographer.

I can imagine how different the story would be today, with everything recorded in video. Twittering notes from my cell with pictures to Twitter and then simulcast posted on my Facebook account to my 1,300 "friends," many of them reporters and journalists and columnists.

Not every photo would get published but you photograph everything, including the gruesome images. The bigger picture and the close-up tragedies.

Thirty years have passed. Every Memorial Day weekend I remember the crash. I don't know why. I didn't know any of the names on the passenger list. But I often wondered about what their lives might have been like. In 30 years, families are built. Children are born and grown up. They enter their careers. Who knows who might have emerged in some great manner to change the world from those who died that day?

Later. when I left the community newspaper and went to the Chicago Sun-Times, I covered many other tragedies, including fires that took the lives of families, children and the homeless who slept in abandoned properties that were torched.

I always remember going to the surviving relatives asking about those who died, being greeted with great sorrow. And shock, sometimes, at my even bothering them at these great moments of grief.

But I always told the survivors, a mother, brother or friend, that the stories written would survive and become the lasting memories that people would carry around with them as newspaper clippings in their wallets. Years from now, I would say, all that you will have left are your memories and what little the news media might write about their once-full lives.

That crash in 1979 is a memory I carry with me always. What would have become of the people on that flight had they lived and gone off to their vacations, business meetings or personal trips in Los Angeles?

What would have become of the children on the flight and young people? What lives would have been born had their lives not ended that day?

Thirty years ago.

All we can remember is what is left to read from reports published in the days and weeks that followed in the pages of newspapers, many of them no longer in existence. All that is left are what little survives in our memories years later.

They say people live forever after death, in the memories of those who are still alive. We have to remember everyone, for no other reason than to help keep them alive.

Ray Hanania covered City Hall from 1977 through 1992. He hosts a morning radio show in Chicago and writes a column for the Southwest News-Herald.