It should have been just another routine flight for United Airlines stewardess Marguerite McCausland of Reston. From National Airport to Chicago Midway on one of the new Boeing 737s. By virtue of her seniority she had the first class section. A quick hop with 55 passengers on Dec. 8, 1972, then to Omaha, then back to D.C. the same day.
It was no routine flight. A mile south of Midway, United Flight 553 was told to pull up and circle back around for another approach. Instead, it plunged into a South Side Chicago neighborhood, snapped in two and erupted into flames.
And as the Chicago news media watched and filmed, firefighter John “Duke” O’Malley dove into the chaos, cut through the debris on top of her and helped lift McCausland to safety, 40 years ago this Saturday. McCausland now lives in Ashburn with her husband, and recently gave her first interview since 1973, when she returned to Chicago and was reunited with O’Malley as the cameras rolled.
The crash quickly gained infamy for another reason: the wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt was on the plane, and died with more than $10,000 cash in her purse. Dorothy Hunt supposedly was involved in distributing cash to people connected to Watergate, and FBI agents were on the crash site with surprising quickness. It became known as “the Watergate crash,” and continues to intrigue conspiracy theorists to this day.
McCausland, now 77, does not think the plane was sabotaged, the pilots poisoned or that the crash had anything to do with Watergate. An extensive National Transportation Safety Board investigation found pilot error to be the cause, and McCausland agrees. “They went through a very thorough investigation,” McCausland said. Investigators determined that the three-man flight crew had discovered their flight data recorder wasn’t working (more fodder for the Watergate conspiracy), and were fiddling with that rather than properly preparing the plane for landing.
Of 61 people on board, she was one of 18 survivors, and the only one in the front of the plane. Two people in the house first struck by the plane also died. Other passengers who were killed included Illinois Congressman George W. Collins and CBS News reporter Michele Clark, who was reportedly pursuing the Watergate story, adding to the suspicions.
“In view of the allegations of foul play which have been injected into the publicity surrounding this accident,” the NTSB report stated, “the Safety Board finds it necessary to present certain aspects of the trauma experienced by nonsurvivors in more detail than would normally be reported.” It was theorized by some that Dorothy Hunt, or her husband, had information that would further incriminate the Watergate operation, and so was killed. The NTSB’s scientific findings never fully quashed those suspicions.
Marguerite McCausland grew up in Oswego, N.Y., and received “hostess training” from Capital Airlines before taking to the air in 1957, mostly in DC-3s. Capital was bought by United in 1961, and “hostesses” were upgraded to “stewardesses” sometime thereafter. The proper term today is “flight attendant.”
During a United work stoppage in 1966, she took a part-time job serving lunch at the Key Club, a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant on Lake Anne Plaza in the new town of Reston. She met an electrical engineer there named Bob McCausland, they married and lived in Reston until 2008, when they moved to the Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn.
On the afternoon of Dec. 8, 1972, McCausland did not know that Dorothy Hunt was on the plane or know of her link to the still unfolding Watergate scandal. “She was just another passenger,” McCausland said, ”and she was also in coach,” while McCausland handled the first class seats.
As the flight approached Chicago, there was no warning of a crash. ”All I can vaguely remember is a very high-pitched, winding sound,” McCausland said. “Very high-pitched. Then you could feel like things were out of control. Then somebody screaming, I don’t know if it was me, ‘We’re gonna crash.’”
The plane struck the corner of a house, which peeled back the fuselage on one side as it skidded across the street and into a second house. McCausland said she “woke up thinking it was a bad dream. And trying to move. I was in my jump seat. That saved my life.”
Items from the plane’s galley and bathroom crashed down on top of her, then bricks from one of the houses. She was pinned. Elsewhere in the plane, “people were trapped. I could hear them dying.” She heard a baby crying, then stop. “I couldn’t see any of this. I do remember I could feel parts of my body burning.”
After 20 minutes, “I remember the firemen coming in,” McCausland said. “One of them came in and said, ‘There’s no one alive in here.’ I probably did something to let them know I was there.”
O’Malley climbed over to her. “He said, ‘I’m going to throw a cloth over your face,’” McCausland recalled, “'because we’re going to cut you out and I don’t want you to get burned.’”
Frank Hanes, a photographer from Chicago Today, watched and wrote: ”The heat from the fire was terrific but there were these men right in the middle of the flames trying to save a stewardess. The firemen kept a steady stream of water on her while the rescuers worked for about 10 minutes in the midst of the fire before they finally got her out alive.”
O’Malley told a Chicago Tribune reporter later that it required several tries to extricate McCausland, but “I had very high hopes for her because she was in such good spirits and so coherent.” McCausland said she didn’t remember that part.
McCausland was also surprised to learn that a Catholic priest had been nearby when the plane hit, and made his way to her while she was still trapped. “I prayed with Marge during the whole ordeal,” Monsignor Robert J. Hagarty told the Tribune. “She was lucky there was so much rubble on top of her because it saved her from the fire and smoke.”
There is a dramatic photo of the moment McCausland first emerged from the plane (above), and then another of her being wheeled away on a stretcher, with both O’Malley and Hagarty at her side.
McCausland suffered third-degree burns, a broken wrist, a crushed thigh, two shattered ankles and various contusions and lacerations. She spent about two weeks at a Chicago hospital, and then three months at Fairfax Hospital.
In December 1973, she and her husband returned to Chicago to thank O’Malley and the other rescuers. “How do you explain what it feels like to be standing here,” she said to reporters, “after being sure you were dead.”
O’Malley and his wife, Joan, saved all the Chicago newspapers for McCausland and the two couples became friends and stayed in touch for years. O’Malley spent 42 years on the Chicago Fire Department, then in retirement took his love of fishing to the community, organizing events for children and writing a fishing column for 30 years for the Southtown Star.
The two couples lost contact around 2008, when the McCauslands moved from Reston and Joan O’Malley became ill. I thought it would be great to reunite them. But Joan O’Malley died in September 2010, and Duke O’Malley followed in May 2011. His 1972 rescue of McCausland was featured in his obituaries.
When she returned to health, Marguerite McCausland worked in the flight attendant office for United for a couple more years, then returned to school and earned a degree in information systems. She then began a second career with the Defense Information Systems Agency, where she worked for 21 years until her retirement in 2002.
As the 40th anniversary of the crash approached, McCausland said she was not afraid to fly, but “in bad weather I do get a little bit anxious.” And as we spoke, a jet flew overhead.
The McCauslands live in the flight path of Dulles Airport, a location which cost two people their lives in Chicago on Dec. 8, 1972. The irony was not lost on McCausland, but she shrugged. “Eh,” she said. “We like it here.”
Here is some raw video posted by the Chicago Fire Department of the events as they unfolded that afternoon on the South Side.