A life sustained by luck and love

Joan Welch, 75, was featured in this photo in an issue of the New Yorker two years before the plane crash that ripped apart the family’s apartment building. - Contributed Photo
Joan Welch, 75, was featured in this photo in an issue of the New Yorker two years before the plane crash that ripped apart the family’s apartment building.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

A chilly, foggy November morning in Chicago, 1959. My mother, Joan, is home taking care of my older brother, Carey, who was born six months earlier. My father, Hal, is a few long blocks away working at Midway Airport, just about to finish the night shift as a customer service agent for United Airlines.

At 5:31 a.m., a TWA freight plane leaves the ground headed for Los Angeles with what witnesses will later describe as one of its four engines on fire. The pilot immediately radios the tower and tells them he will be swinging back around to make an emergency landing.

My parents live in a small apartment building, in an area densely populated with low to medium-income homes and families. They have been married for just over two years, and are as overwhelmed as they are excited to have a newborn. They have decided to do the best they can on one salary as my mother, a former stewardess, has become a full-time mom.

Having just finished nursing my brother and gently returning him to his crib, which nestles snugly in their tiny living room, my mother retires to the single bedroom to try and grab a couple of hours of sleep. Sleep when your baby sleeps, she thinks, adhering to the old adage. Within a few minutes she hears the unmistakable whirring sound of a plane descending from the sky. It’s a sound my parents live with daily due to their proximity to Midway, with over 400 flights arriving and departing each day. This sound, however, grows uncomfortably louder and sub-consciously she knows that something is wrong. It’s too loud, and too close, and for a few seconds she waits and wonders what exactly is going on. She doesn’t remember the huge collision, or the massive explosions, or any shattered windows or flaming debris. She does remember feeling as if everything was weirdly unfamiliar, her senses heightened and razor sharp.

Hurrying to my brother’s crib to snatch him up, his eyes wide with alarm, she pushes her sense of panic down and concentrates on moving quickly out of the apartment.

The urge to flee is overwhelming, and after opening the door to the hallway, she immediately steps across to her neighbor’s door and pounds on it, waiting for a reply that will never come.

Worrying correctly that her neighbor, Giuselo Petrisco, and 5-month-old baby, Mark, were home while her husband, Joe, works a night shift as a mechanic at Midway, she pounds again. Stepping back, my mother notices for the first time that though the door and frame are still standing, there is nothing left behind it. That entire side of the building has been sheared off and evaporated amidst the forces of flying metal and fuel. Stunned, she scrambles down the hall and races for the vestibule. It’s nothing more than a little entry way to stomp off the cold and wet before going through another door to gain access to the apartments. My brother remains calm as she clutches him to her chest, not crying, just clinging to her as if he, too, senses the peril which surrounds them. For a fleeting moment — such are the times and sentiments — she wonders if the Russians have actually fired the first shot of the Cold War.

Reaching the vestibule, she can hear and feel the concussion of parked cars exploding in the street, their jagged metal debris producing a symphony of shrapnel pings off the side of the building. To head out now would be suicide, so she decides she must wait as long as she can. Sitting low amidst the growing fog of smoke, she listens intently for the sounds of exploding metal to subside before making her break.

Minutes pass, again with an ethereal quality to them, as there is nothing now except concentrating on choosing the right moment to try and make it out of the mine field the neighborhood has become. Police, fire and medical personnel have covered the short distance to the crash site and have begun cordoning off the streets. Fire hoses are deployed. Policemen and firemen race into buildings and homes for a quick check in the faint hope that someone needs rescuing. The door to my mother’s vestibule flies open and for a moment she has locked eyes with a fireman, stunned to see her and her baby inside, alive and well. He tells her to stick to the side of what remains of the building and head for the fire trucks and ambulances, their amber lights a beacon of safety in the smoke-filled chaos. Covered in soot, clutching the most precious thing she knows, she disappears into the morning haze and sprints for the safety of those lights.

My dad is still at work at the airport as a cleaning lady rushes by, telling folks that a plane has crashed less than a mile from the airport. He steps out the back door of the terminal to see the fires several blocks away. He knows that the devastation is too close to home, too close to his wife and son. He starts a long run for the employee parking lot, his heart racing and a sense of dread enveloping him as he fumbles for his keys. Tearing out the lot, he pushes their old Vauxhall hard and accelerates onto the main thoroughfare, his foot pressed fully down on the gas pedal. There is not much traffic at that time of the morning, and he has only a couple of cars to overtake and veer around before making the final turns to the apartment building. The first responders from the airport have reacted quickly, and are everywhere. The police have begun to barricade the neighborhood, wary of further explosions. My dad will only be able to get to within a couple of long blocks of his home.

The TWA flight had been delayed for over an hour that morning, the three-man crew waiting patiently on unidentified replacement equipment. Their nearly four-hour layover would become the calm before the storm. Finally aboard the plane and eager to be on their way, the pilot receives clearance and accelerates down one of Midway’s eight crisscrossed runways. Airborne for only a couple of minutes, a sudden loss of power from the now-flaming engine forces the pilot to attempt to return to the airport. After banking hard and reversing course, the plane is uncontrollable and descending too rapidly in the foggy morning. Fighting to keep the plane above what he knows to be the neighborhood bordering the airport will prove futile, and he can surely see the first of many rooftops looming larger and larger through his window.

The calm of a bitter Chicago morning ends as rooftop after rooftop is violently sheared off in the darkened neighborhood. The plane strikes a house about five blocks from the airport, the pilot’s frantic fight for control now lost, and then glances off two others before slicing through a light post and exploding into two bungalows about two blocks from the runway. The plane disintegrates into many airborne missiles, its tail section barreling into the apartment building where my parents live, effectively imploding half the building. It is later estimated that the plane was less than ten seconds from returning safely to Midway Airport. Ten seconds that will forever alter the course of many lives. Eleven souls will perish, and 13 more face serious injury.

My father slides his car to a stop, jamming it in park and jumping from the vehicle, leaving the door wide open. As he clears a fire truck, his eyes try to absorb the devastation of the apartment building. Running fast now, without thought of personal safety, he races past a barricade and toward the flames until he is abruptly yanked off his feet and finds himself wrapped in the arms of a huge police officer who says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa ... you can’t go in there ... I’m sorry, sorry, you can’t go in there.” My dad struggles to free himself, but it’s no use against the massive arms which hold him. The adrenaline coursing through his veins is suddenly and swiftly met with a heartache so profound he feels as if he may pass out from the weight of it. Released from the arms restraining him, he is unable to answer the officer as he asks, “Sir ... sir, are you OK?”

Stepping back, my dad swivels around and notices the war zone the neighborhood has become, brilliantly lit by both the blaze of the fires and the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. Sirens wail in the distance as more emergency vehicles are summoned. His moistening eyes slide over a crew of paramedics on the back of one ambulance and continue on to another car sitting nearby, where he can just make out the shape of two women and a baby. Is it real? Could it be? He begins what will be the shortest walk of his life as his heart propels him through his astonishment and there, huddled in the back of my mom’s best friend’s car, are his two favorite people in the world. My mom’s friend, Jan Youngberg, is on her way to work as a stewardess when she sees the flames in her rear view mirror. Instantly turning around to see if she could somehow help, she would stand helplessly by until through the smoke she sees my mom running out of her apartment building and frantically waves her over. They are smoke-covered and dirty, but otherwise unharmed, and will huddle together in an attempt to grasp the magnitude of what has happened. In a transcendent moment my mother sees my Dad now approaching and says simply “Hi, Hal.” The disbelief at what he is witnessing is replaced with laughter, as her calmness invades every tissue of his body and he knows for the first time that they are the lucky ones amidst the tragedy surrounding them. “Are you OK?” seems absurd, but it’s all he can muster as he clutches them, grateful and awed to be standing there alive and well in a field of destruction.

My parents will rely on the generosity of fellow flight attendants and co-workers in the upcoming weeks as friends offer their already tiny apartments to a burgeoning family of three. Several days after the crash, the American Red Cross somehow tracked down my parents and delivered a new crib. Food, shelter, warmth and safety are gifts that will mark both my parents’ lives as I will see countless times later on. Growing up, they offered food and shelter to neighborhood kids. My mother even acts as a legal guardian for a young African-American boy struggling to stay in school, effectively changing his life and propelling him forward to a good job and a family of his own. My mother’s very stoic, do-the-right-thing-without-fanfare approach to life is so genuine that growing up, my two brothers and I met and became friends with kids of every social, ethnic and racial denomination. Her open-mindedness and kindness are gifts that I hope to be able to pass on to my two sons, one who has just turned three, and one who should be arriving this June.

My parents divorced many years ago, but have remained dear friends since, sharing laughs and compassion during good times and bad. She provided strength for him when he was in the hospital battling pneumonia; he flew up from San Diego for an extended period of time as she received a heart transplant from the University of Washington Medical Center here in Seattle about 10 years ago. We often joke that my mom’s heart was shared so often that she needed another one to continue helping people. He still pays a bill or two for her, and years ago gifted her a “spare” car when hers stopped running. She offers holistic cures for any ailment he may mention, and will send down one of her patented vitamin concoctions as needed to assist his fight with bladder cancer. It is as it should be for two people who have literally walked through the fire together.

But for a slight turn by the pilot, but for the laws of physics, but for the location of my folks’ apartment on a particular side of a hallway in Midway, Chicago, I wouldn’t be here writing this account today. I try to remember that during both tough times and glorious times, and in particular to relish the privilege and responsibility that life grants us.


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