UPDATED 10/13/11 5:43 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — It remains one of the worst air disasters in U.S. history.
Thirty-two years ago, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed after take-off from O’Hare International Airport, killing 271 people on board and two people on the ground.
Now, for the first time, a memorial will stand in their honor.
CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole has the story of the middle school students who made it happen.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports
The memorial is a simple wall on the edge of a Des Plaines park in the shadow of O’Hare International Airport.
“It was one of those things you say, ‘Okay, it’s just never gonna be,’” said Kim Jockl, a daughter of two of the victims. She said she can’t believe a memorial now stands in honor of those who died.
The names of the victims are etched in 273 stones that make up the memorial wall. Among the names are Bill and Corrine Borchers, who were traveling to Hawaii. Jockl is their daughter.
“We all share this moment – May 25, 1979, ” Jockl said.
On May 25, 1979, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took off for what was to be a flight to Los Angeles International Airport. During takeoff, the left engine and pylon assembly and about 3 feet of the left wing separated from the plane and came crashing down to the runway.
The plane kept rolling to the left until it was flying sideways and the wings were vertically oriented, and the nose was pointed toward the ground, according to the official accident report.
The plane crashed into an open field off Touhy Avenue in Elk Grove Township, and wreckage scattered onto a trailer park nearby. The aircraft burst into flames on the ground, and everyone aboard died.
The wreckage resembled a battlefield. The smell of jet fuel was strong. Flags dotted the crash site — each signifying a victim’s body.
Back on O’Hare runway 32R sat the DC-10’s port engine, which had been improperly reattached to the plane several weeks earlier by American mechanics.
For the victims’ families, and also the crews who attended to the deadly crash, there has never been a dedicated place to honor the dead and reflect on the tragedy, until now.
“It will be such a great thing for people to finally say, ‘Yes, this happened. Because there was never closure,” Jockl said.
It was a group of then sixth graders from Decatur Classical School, at 7030 N. Sacramento Ave. in West Rogers Park, who took on the memorial as their cause two years ago and made it happen.
“This is a really deep, heavy subject and they understood the loss,” said their teacher, Beth Allegretti.
Jockl is the students’ vice principal. When the students heard her story, they decided to enter a nationwide citizenship competition to lobby for the memorial.
They won, although not without running into adversity.
The students received a curt reply from American Airlines, which, in the opinion of student Ayo Odowu, told them to “let it go.”
“That letter from American Airlines really motivated us and got us up,” she said.
Up, as in passionate or angry.
Refusing to take “no” for an answer, they put together an exhibit and design that won local and national competitions, and caught the eye of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and the Des Plaines Park District. Lawmakers secured funding for the project.
“They sometimes can say things clearer and ore concise than adults can,” Jockl said.
“We just used a computer program that you can download for free, Google Sketch-Up,” said student Lina Kapp. “It’s a 3-D design program and we started playing with various elements of the design for the memorial itself.”
Students such as Kapp, Odowu and Leah Gomez have kept coming back to Decatur, even though they’re now in high school, to see the monument through to completion.
“All of a sudden, this was going to happen and, as a teacher, this is the ultimate,” Jockl said.
The school is now preparing for Saturday’s dedication. They are expecting at least 2,000 people.
“Everyone wants to tell their story – whether they are a firemen, policeman, a mother – they want to say, ‘I want to tell you how I am connected to the flight,’” Jockl said.
The crash occurred before airlines had grief systems in place, so no complete lists were made of the dead and families were never really all brought together.
At Saturday’s dedication, many will meet for the first time, all in great part because of the work of some Chicago Public School kids.