Crash sur­vivor

Vir­ginia woman was an at­ten­dant on ‘Water­gate’ flight

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY TOM JACK­MAN

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.

Some back­ground

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...

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