WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On February 15, 1961, Sabena Flight 548 from New York City to Brussels, Belgium, crashed, killing all 11 crew members, 61 passengers, and 1 person on the ground.
The entire U.S. Figure Skating team were on board, traveling to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, all of them dying in the crash.
Though thorough investigations have been done to determine the cause of the crash, it remains a mystery. This was the first fatal accident involving a Boeing 707 in regular passenger service, and to this day is the deadliest plane crash on Belgian soil.
There were 11 crew members on the flight, including 2 ex-army pilots with a lot of flying experience. No difficulties were reported during the 7 and a half hour, trans-atlantic flight, and there was no indication that the plane was in any sort of trouble, besides 20 minutes before landing, the crew lost radio contact with the airport.
The sky was clear and the plane was on a long approach to the runway when, at about 900 feet, the power increased and the landing gear retracted. Because of a smaller plane that was still on the runway, the plane had to abort its landing, so it circled the airport and made another attempt.
The second attempt had to be aborted, as well, because the runway they planned to land at wasn't operational. At this point, it became clear that there was a technical issue and the pilots were a fighting over control, each trying to make a desperate attempt to land safely.
In total, the plane circled the airport 3 times, before going back 1,500 feet in the air. And then, it lost speed and spiraled to toward the ground rapidly, nose down. It hit the ground less than 2 miles away from the airport. Eyewitnesses said the plane burst into flames the minute it hit the ground.
A man who was working in a nearby field was killed by a piece of shrapnel from the plane, and another field worker was hit with debris which amputated part of his leg.
Though airport rescue arrived almost immediately, the plane was already exploded and on fire when they arrived. It is assumed that all 72 passengers died on impact.
The King and Queen traveled to the crash site to pay their respects, and donated oak coffins for the transport of the bodies back home.
THE U.S. FIGURE SKATING TEAM, THEN AND BEYOND
There were 18 members of the team on board who lost their lives, and 16 others who were accompanying them, including friends, family, coaches and officials.
Some of the biggest names in U.S. Figure Skating were aboard the plane, including 9-time ladies' champion-turned-coach Maribel Winson-Owen, and her 2 daughters who were also figure skating superstars. Her 16 year old daughter had just won gold at the U.S. championships 2 weeks earlier, and was the cover of Sports Illustrated 2 days before her death.
Despite many teams having already arrived for the competition, it was cancelled in light of the tragedy. Though the organizers in Prague had voted to have the competition go on, the International Skating Union took a vote, and it ended in favor of canceling the event.
The team was mourned across the figure skating community and the world, the story being front page on many international newspapers. President John F. Kennedy, less than a month into his presidency, issued a statement about the tragedy. It hit him particularly hard, as he had been friends with Dudley Richards, one of the deceased.
The U.S. Figure Skating program suffered a blow after the deaths, with the bulk of their most talented skaters gone. They had been dominant throughout the 1950s, and it was predicted to take years for them to regain their reign in the sport.
Barbara Roles, a 1960 bronze medalist, came out of retirement 8 months after giving birth, winning hold at the 1962 U.S. championships.
The tragedy also forced younger skaters to progress more quickly to fill the gap, namely, Scott Allen who won silver in the U.S. championships in 1962 at age 12, and won bronze at the 1964 Winter Olympics the week of his 15th birthday.
The U.S. did not start to win medals at world championships again until 1965, and didn't regain their international stardom until the 1968 winter olympics, where U.S. figure skaters brought home the gold in both men and women's figure skating.
The fatalities also took many amazing coaches, which lead to, for the first time, foreign coaches leading the U.S. teams. The disaster lead to a rule that still stands today that the team cannot travel to an international competition together ever again.
THOSE WHO DIED
Many young, extremely talented and decorated skaters lost their lives that day. Here are the 18 skaters who died.
- Rhode Lee Michelson (age 17) U.S. Bronze Medalist
- Laurence Rochon Owen (16) U.S. and North American champion, Olympic and World team member
- Stephanie Westerfeld (17) U.S. Silver Medalist
- Gregory Kelley (16) U.S. Silver Medalist, North American Bronze Medalist, World team member
- Bradley Lord (21) U.S. champion, North American Silver Medalist, World team member
- Douglas Ramsay (16) U.S. Championships 4th Place Medalist
- Ila Ray Hadley (18) and Ray Ellis Hadley (17) Olympic and World team members, U.S. Pairs Silver Medalists
- Laurie Jean Hickox (15) and William Holmes Hickox (19) U.S. Pairs Bronze Medalists
- Maribel Yerxa Owen (20) and Dudley Shaw Richards (29) Olympic team members, U.S. Pairs Champions, North American Silver Medalists
- Dona Lee Carrier (20) and Roger Campbell (19) U.S. and North American Silver Medalists
- Patricia Major Dineen (24) and Robert Dineen (23) U.S. Bronze Medalists
- Diane Carol Sherbloom (18) and Larry Pierce (24) U.S. Champions
Beyond those on the ice, many prominent figures in coaching and judging, as well as other people heavily involved in the U.S. Figure Skating team were on the plane, and died that day.
- Daniel Ryan (coach)
- Eduard Schlodan (coach)
- Maribel Yerxa Vinson-Owen (coach)
- Linda Hadley (coach)
- William Kipp (coach)
- William Swallender (coach)
- Harold Hartshorne (judge)
- Edward LeMaire (judge)
- Deane McMinn (team manager)
- Walter S. Powell (referee)
Within days of the tragedy, the U.S. Figure Skating Executive Committee established a memorial fund to honor the skaters and everyone else who lost their lives that day. The goal of the fund was to help rebuild the figure skating program, providing financial support to young, promising skaters to pursue their dreams.
Over the years, thousands of young skaters have benefited from the fund, namely Peggy Fleming, who's coach died on the plane. She went on to win gold at the 1968 Winter Olympics.
In 2011, the whole team was inducted into the U.S. Skating Hall of Fame in a special ceremony. The 6 coaches were inducted, as well.
The U.S. Figure Skating executives commissioned a full-length documentary called RISE to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film. It played across theaters in the U.S. for just one night on February 17, 2011.
The loss of so many people in such an instantaneous disaster is heartbreaking and horrifying no matter what, but losing the entirety of something - a team, a school, an organization - so quickly adds another layer to the tragedy.
Though those 18 talented young skaters did not get the chance to continue their extremely successful careers, their legacy lives on in those who have. The U.S. holds the most total medals, and the most of each medal, in Figure Skating (2), a feat that may have ben possible because of the memorial fund. And for people who were so great at and passionate about the sport, one would hope that they would be proud.