Virginia woman was an attendant on ‘Watergate’ flight
A flight attendant recalls the 1972 Chicago airplane disaster that took the life of a Watergate conspirator’s wife.
It should have been just another routine flight for United Airlines attendant 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 the District the same day.
It was no routine flight. A mile south of Midway, United Flight 553 was told to pull up and circle back for another approach. Instead, it plunged into a South Side Chicago neighborhood, snapped in two and burst 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 past weekend. McCausland 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.
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 in cash in her purse. Dorothy Hunt supposedly was involved in distributing cash to people connected to Watergate, and FBI agents were at the crash site with surprising quickness. It became known as “the Watergate crash” and continues to intrigue conspiracy theorists.
McCausland, 77, does not think that the plane was sabotaged, that the pilots were poisoned or that the crash had anything to do with Watergate. An extensive National Transportation Safety Board investigation found pilot error as the cause, and McCausland agrees. “They went through a very thorough investigation,” McCausland said. Investigators determined that the three-man flight crew had discovered that the flight data recorder wasn’t working (more fodder for the Watergate conspiracy) and was fiddling with that rather than preparing the plane for landing.
Of 61 people on board, McCausland was one of 18 survivors and the only one at 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.
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.”
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 highpitched. 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, and 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 lavatory crashed 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.”
Through the ordeal
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 emerged from the plane, and then another of her being wheeled away on a stretcher, with O’Mal- ley and Hagarty at her side.
McCausland suffered third-degree burns, a broken wrist, a crushed thigh and shattered ankles. She spent about two weeks at a Chicago hospital and then three months at a 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 with 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 about 2008, when the McCauslands moved from Reston. Joan O’Malley became ill and died in September 2010. Duke O’Malley followed in May 2011. The rescue of McCausland was featured in his obituary.
After she recovered from the crash, Marguerite McCausland worked in the flight attendant office for United for a couple of 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 that she was not afraid to fly but that “in bad weather I do get a little bit anxious.”
The McCauslands live in the flight path of Dulles International Airport, and the irony was not lost on McCausland. She shrugged. “Eh,” she said. “We like it here.”
Marguerite McCausland, at bottom center in top photo, is helped out of the wreckage by Chicago firefighter John “Duke” O’Malley, left of McCausland and working without his helmet. At right, Ashburn resident McCausland shares her recollections from the 1972 plane crash. She was one of 18 survivors, and she and O’Malley stayed in touch for many years. He died last year.