A Brief History
On February 15, 1961, the sporting world was rocked by one of the worst disasters in sports history, the crash of Sabena Flight 548 in Belgium, killing all 72 people on board, including the entire US Figure Skating team, both competitors and coaches and even some family members. Luckily, only 1 person on the ground was also killed. Other sports teams have suffered from the catastrophic crash of airliners and buses, or even the terrorist massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but the US Figure Skating team loss was one of the first really big disasters and one of the most complete.
Sabena Flight 548 originated in New York, at the then named Idlewild Airport. The skaters were heading to Prague, Czechoslovakia for the World Championship competition. The long range 4 engine jetliner was a Boeing 707, the state of the art airliner for its time. As the big jet approached Zaventem Airport, Brussels, Belgium, trouble started brewing right away. The first landing attempt had to be aborted because of a small airplane on the intended runway, and the 707 had to crank up its landing gear and make another pass around the airport. The second landing attempt was called off because the runway the pilots wanted to use was not operational. Ground observers noticed the pilots were having a hard time controlling the jetliner, though the exact problem was and is unknown. Circling the airport again, the jet fell out of the sky about 2 miles from the airport.
As bad as all 72 people on board dying in a crash and ensuing inferno of jet fuel fed flames, the fact that the jet crashed in a marshy, rural area prevented more devastation. The lone victim on the ground was a farmer who was working in his field. He was killed by metal debris flying from the crash, and another farm worker in the same field suffered a partial leg amputation, also from flying metal.
Among those passengers killed were 18 skaters and another 16 people associated with the skating team, coaches, trainers, and family members. One of the victims was 9 time US Figure Skating Champion Maribel Vinson-Owen who was coaching the team. Sadly, her 2 daughters were also on the same flight and died in the crash. One daughter was 16 year old Laurence Owen, the reigning US Ladies Champion. Her sister, 20 year old Maribel Owen was on the reigning US Champion Pairs team. Maribel’s Pairs partner, Dudley “Dud” Richards, was also aboard and died, as did reigning US Men’s Champion, Bradley Lord. The other team members were also highly acclaimed and accomplished skaters.
In a profound gesture of respect, the members of the world skating community decided to cancel the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships altogether. (The International Skating Union, or ISU, took a vote of the member countries.) Competition was postponed until 1962.
President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, issued the obligatory condolences to the families of the victims and the nation, but he also had a personal stake in the tragedy, as Dudley Richards was actually a personal friend of the President and JFK’s brother, Ted.
The competitive edge of the United States Figure Skating team was horribly shaken, but in response to the tragedy the 1960 Olympic Bronze Medalist in Ladies’ Figure Skating, Barbara Roles, who had retired after her Olympic performance, came out of retirement and won the US Championship Gold Medal in 1962. She placed 5th in the World Championships in Prague in 1962. In response to the tragedy, US Figure Skating officials decreed that an entire team would never travel together again, and that edict has been followed ever since.
Investigators were unable to ascertain the exact cause of the crash, though the theory that there was some sort of mechanical failure of one of the control mechanisms was generally acknowledged as the probable cause. In 2001, a monument to the victims of the crash was dedicated in Berg-Kampenhout, Belgium.
The Boeing 707 was the first truly successful jet airliner, capable of flying a long way at a high speed in a great degree of comfort and reliability. Well over 800 of these great planes were built, as were 800 military variants. The 707 was introduced to service in 1958, and was produced until 1978, though few are flying today except in military and charter service. In 2019 and Iranian operated 707 crashed, the last civilian passenger version in service. In 1970, a major motion picture, Airport, was released to become a major box office smash hit, raking in over $100 million at the box office against a cost of $10 million. Loaded with big stars and concerning a mentally ill man who just happens to be an explosives expert, the real star of the film is the 707 jetliner that suffers the explosion of the suicide bomb the depressed man sets off. The plane survives to make a safe landing and perhaps more importantly, generates sequels! (Sequels include Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde … Airport ’79, not to mention the spoof films, Airplane and Airplane II.)
Question for students (and subscribers): What sporting team disaster would you call the worst ever? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bushman, Patricia. Indelible Tracings: The Story of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team. Stewart and Grey, 2010.
Nichols, Nikki. Frozen in Time: The Enduring Legacy of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team. Clerisy Press, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Herbert Behrens, is an image from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, donated in the context of a partnership program. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.