Survivors recall doomed United Flight 553 as anniversary of Chicago crash draws near: 'Like a bomb exploded'

Early December will mark the 50th anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 553, which slammed into a residential neighborhood just south of Midway Airport.

A survivor of one of Chicago's worst aviation disasters is reliving the nightmare.

Forty-five people died, including the wife of a key Watergate scandal figure, sparking conspiracy theories that live to this day.

Tom Wydra stood at the corner of 71st Street and Hamlin Avenue, where 50-years-ago he and some friends were in a car headed to the mall when suddenly the West Lawn neighborhood shook with a tremendous roar.

"Well the day, 1972. It was December 8th. It was 2:30 in the afternoon," Wydra recalled. "We hear a loud roar of a jet engine that was something we'd never heard before. And all of a sudden we hear a giant thump! And we yell out, 'a plane just crashed!'"

Flight 553, carrying 61 people, had fallen out of the sky slamming into the 3700 block of West 70th Place, about two miles southeast of Midway where it was trying to land. Forth-three people on the plane and two people on the ground were killed. Amazingly, 18 people on the plane survived.

"We run down to 70th Place and we see a tail of a commercial airliner sitting where the houses were. With the light still blinking on it," Wydra said.

"I heard the plane approach. And he got louder and louder and he sounded like he was in takeoff mode," witness Evan Cotter said.


Cotter had just arrived home from eighth grade and was changing in his bedroom when the plane slammed into his family's brick bungalow.

Image 1 of 11

  (National Transportation Safety Board investigators)

"And after that everything in the house went horizontal. Bricks flew through the house. Broken glass. There were pieces of airplane in the house. My mother was in the kitchen at the time and she said she saw the tail of the plane go on by," Cotter said.

Cotter still lives on the block in a house that was rebuilt after the crash.

"This is my house next door. There's a big section of wing. It hit the back of the house and got sheared off," Cotter said. "I called out for my mother. I found her in the house. We ran to the front of the house. We looked out the door. The only thing we could see was the tail sticking out of the house across the street."

The flight had originated in Washington, D.C. and was headed to Omaha, Nebraska with a stop in Chicago. It was a cold and wet day with clouds just 500 feet above the ground.

Controllers at Midway told the pilots to do a go-around to avoid a slower plane in front of them. The pilots circled around, but forgot they had lowered the spoilers on the wings, creating too much drag, eventually causing the plane to stall.

"Witnesses say that he came out of the clouds and he was like this (hand gesture) but then the plane started going like this. And then it was like this and boom, it hit," said Midway Airport historian Christopher Lync.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined the crash was caused by "the captain's failure to exercise positive flight management," essentially pilot error.

But many believed the crash was part of a nefarious political plot because of one passenger.

"Dorothy Hunt happened to be the spouse of E. Howard Hunt, one of the people being investigated for the Watergate break-in," said Paul Durica of the Chicago History Museum.

E. Howard Hunt was one of the so-called "plumbers" who broke into the Watergate Hotel to bug Democratic offices on behalf of President Richard M. Nixon.

White House tapes captured the moment Nixon was told about the crash that killed Hunt's wife.

"I just got a terribly tragic bit of news," Nixon adviser Charles W. Colson. "That plane crash, Howard Hunt's wife was on it, and it's--"

"His wife is dead," Nixon asked.

"Yes sir. She was killed on the plane crash in Chicago," Colson replied.

"Oh my God," Nixon said.

Fueling suspicion was the fact Dorothy Hunt was carrying $10,000 in cash on the doomed plane, and conspiracy theorists believed she also had a Watergate smoking gun.

"That she had in her possession certain documents that would implicate President Richard Nixon in the Watergate break-in and ultimately lead to the downfall of his presidency. So she needed to be taken out, and all the other passengers who died on that flight were simply collateral damage," Durica said.

Of course, none of that proved to be true.

Today, you can still see where Flight 553 hit, by the new houses built on the block.

"Still etched in my brain. I've talked about it for 50 years," Wydra said.

He still visits the site every year.

"I'd come by here and say a quick prayer for the people that lost their lives. It's something I've never forgotten. It haunts me to this day," Wydra said.

"It just wasn't my time and it wasn't my mother's time at that point to die like that," Cotter said.

Cotter had one more surprise stashed away in a bedroom closet -- a piece of the plane found in his sister's bedroom five decades ago.

"I have what's left of Flight 553," Cotter said. "[I kept it] just as a memento. Just as a reminder of how bad it was over here."