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“No One Survived” American Airlines Flight 191 Crash May 25, 1979 Near O’Hare

Tue May 26 2015 11:08 am
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Some days you never forget. I was working at Northwest Community Hospital’s Emergency Room as an Emergency Medical Technician on May 25, 1979. My 7 am-3:30 pm shift was about to end, when the ER charge nurse assigned me to meet a patient at the driveway of the Emergency Room entrance. A woman drove her husband to the hospital because he was experiencing chest pain. As I brought a wheelchair up to the side of the car, WBBM News Radio 780 was breaking a news story — a passenger jet had crashed at O’Hare International airport about 6 miles away at 3:04 p.m. CDT. I asked the couple, “Did they just say a plane crashed at O’Hare?” They both replied, “Yes, it just happened.” I told them we’ll get you right inside and up to your room before things get chaotic in the Emergency Room.

Many people witnessed the crash or the immediate aftermath of the crash — a huge explosion that sent flames and smoke back up into the sky. Here are 13 people’s phone reports to the emergency number at Elk Grove Village Fire Department.

The Emergency Room was quiet, and the patient I brought in from the ER driveway was evaluated quickly by a physician and transferred to the coronary care unit (CCU). He was stable. As a nurse and I transferred him to the ninth floor CCU, I knew the elevator lobby on the ninth floor had an east window that overlooked the Chicago skyline and O’Hare International Airport. As we got out of the elevator, I immediately looked to the window. In the foreground of the City of Chicago, a heavy column of black smoke was rising from a site north of the airport. We turned the corner in the lobby and headed for the patient’s room.

After moving the patient to his bed in his room, the nurse and I brought the empty gurney back to the emergency room. The hospital PA had been announcing the disaster plan was in effect. The Emergency Room already looked a lot different than it looked when we left it. Staff from all departments were converging on the Emergency Room. We were now assigned to prepare the hospital to receive patients from a mass casualty incident. We learned 271 people were on board. We knew some patients would go to Lutheran General in Park Ridge, Alexian Brothers in Elk Grove and some to Resurrection in Chicago. But we were preparing to receive up to 100 patients. Gurneys lined the hallways near the Emergency Room. We moved boxes of IV solutions and prepared setups near gurneys. The cafeteria, which had movable tables then, was cleared. Most of the tables were replaced by rows of gurneys. Then we waited, and waited.

Suburban Fire Radio Communications: When American Airlines Flight 191 crashed just north of O’Hare International Airport there were were many witnesses to the smoke and fire that immediately rose from the crash site. Some fire units were already on the street and reported the unknown source of a huge fire and headed straight for the disaster scene.*

My mind switched to my other job. I wondered what was happening there. I was also a fire dispatcher for Arlington Heights Fire Department, which was also the MABAS Division 1 command for many of the suburban fire departments that would be responding to the scene. I remember being a little disappointed I wasn’t working there that day. I would have had quite a challenge — dispatching fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances from multiple departments, and relaying messages from various emergency agencies.

Back at the emergency room we waited. We watched ABC 7 Chicago on the waiting room television, and saw live images of the crash site. We switched to other channels — NBC 5 Chicago, CBS 2 Chicago and WGN — all showing about the same images. Fox News Chicago didn’t have primetime news until 1987. Still no patients. Sadly we learned that the impact of the aircraft was so hard that there were no survivors on the aircraft. Two people on the ground were also killed. They were working in a warehouse near the impact zone of the crashed aircraft. They heard the loud crash and opened a door of the warehouse. They were hit by a wall of flames from the burning McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and suffered fatal burn injuries.

The realization that no one survived was a shock that silenced everyone in the hospital and emergency room that day.

— Mark Bostrom

Chicago Fire Department radio communications of Americian Airlines Flight 191 crash on May 25, 1979 at O’Hare International Airport.

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* This video clip includes the audio (with added transcript in video text) of the Local Fire frequency that was shared by several suburbs just north of the airport: Elk Grove Township, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights.

Abbreviations used in the video transcript:
AHTS … Arlington Heights Fire Department serves the next suburb north of Elk Grove Village. The Arlington Heights Fire Alarm Office was also the command center for MABAS Division 1 (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) — the mutual aid district that encompassed the disaster scene. The Arlington Heights Fire Department office managed the MABAS response via the NIFERN radio frequency, which is now known as IFERN and is used for major disasters when mutual aid among fire departments is required. Chicago Fire Department also managed a separate command that is not heard in this audio (Chief 400 and 400 units).

EGRT … Elk Grove Township Fire Department is the fire protection district that was closest to the disaster scene, directly north of O’Hare International Airport. At the time of the crash, Elk Grove Township Fire Department was a brand new department. If I remember correctly, their ambulance had not yet certified for Advanced Life Support at the time of the crash. That is probably why EGRT Ambulance 321 was calling for help requesting an MICU. In the early days of Emergency Medical Service (EMS), Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances staffed by paramedics were called Mobile Intensive Care Units (MICU) (Chief 300 and 300 units).

EGRV — Elk Grove Village Fire Department was the next closest suburb to the disaster scene. EGRV borders most of the west side of O’Hare International Airport. Most of the dispatcher communication at the beginning of the audio is from the Elk Grove Village Fire Department fire dispatch/alarm office (Chief 100 and 100 units).

MABAS … Mutual Alarm Box Alarm System invented in 1968 for suburban fire departments and modeled after the City of Chicago fire response alarm system. The system now includes the suburbs and the City of Chicago.

MTPR … Mount Prospect Fire Department covers the next suburb north of the district covered by Elk Grove Rural Township Fire Department (Chief 500 and 500 units).

NIFERN … Northern Illinois Fire Emergency Radio Network is former name of IFERN the current acronym for the Interagency Fire Emergency Radio Network.

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