By Burt Constable
On Wednesday’s anniversary of the tragedy that killed their parents, siblings Melody Smith, Kim Jockl and Jim Borchers make their annual pilgrimage to the Flight 191 memorial wall in Lake Park in Des Plaines. The worst aviation accident in U.S. history, on May 25, 1979, killed 273 people, including Bill and Corrinne “Nudy” Borchers.
The Borchers’ daughters and son played a key role in getting that brick wall monument bearing the names of those killed when American Airlines Flight 191 lost an engine on takeoff and plummeted into a field in Elk Grove Township, scarring the earth and sending a towering plume of black smoke toward the heavens. In addition to organizing a 25th anniversary gathering at a chapel at O’Hare International Airport, the siblings’ push for a memorial got a boost when a sixth-grade class at Decatur Classical School in Chicago, where Jockl served as assistant principal, made the memorial the goal of their Constitutional Rights Foundation project. That led U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston and state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge to secure $20,000 in funding from American Airlines for the memorial, which was unveiled in 2011.
Smith, Jockl and Borchers recently published a book, “Safe Landing,” that takes readers on the journey of how the three young adults dealt with the sudden loss of their parents, found out everything they could about the crash and worked to make sure the victims would never be forgotten. For the past 4½ years, Smith, 75, Borchers, 72, and Jockl, 66, gathered at Jockl’s home in Chicago every Thursday to write.
“Initially we were doing this for ourselves,” says Smith, who lives in Arlington Heights and had a long career as developmental coordinator with the Arlington Heights Historical Museum.
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Working with old photographs and documents, they compiled the story in a three-ring binder before turning to Chris O’Brien, founder of Long Overdue Books. O’Brien helped them realize that it wasn’t just their family affected by the tragedy and that other families, first responders and even American Airlines employees would appreciate their book.
“This was just the three of us, sitting around the kitchen table,” says Borchers, who lives in Chicago.
The cover of the book, available at longoverduebooks.com, shows parents Bill and Nudy (a nickname that carried over from her baby photos) having a great time dancing. The title, “Safe Landing,” is a nod to the way each of them recovered to get on with their lives after losing their “anchors.”
On the day of the crash, Jockl, having just canceled her wedding and enjoying a vacation with friends in Mexico before her graduation from Northeastern Illinois University, got a strange feeling while relaxing poolside.
“I’m going upstairs to lie down,” she told friends. “I thought it was just too much sun.”
As the manager of a bar on Division Street, Borchers was getting things ready for the Friday night crowd. “We had one TV on in the back. I could see smoke and it said something about a crash at O’Hare,” remembers Borchers, who called Smith.
“I had talked to my mom and dad in the morning,” Smith says, recounting how her parents took a cab to O’Hare so as not to bother anybody.
American Airlines never returned her call, so she reached out to her parents’ travel agent, who confirmed that they were booked on Flight 191.
Borchers rode with his roommate toward the airport. “We kind of followed the smoke,” he remembers, explaining how a state trooper stopped them from getting near the scene and directed them to O’Hare. He was talking to Smith from his post in a room for relatives when a monitor showed the names of the passengers on the doomed flight.
“As we were talking, he said mom and dad’s names just came on the screen,” Smith remembers.
Dental records identified the remains. They buried their mom’s remains in a family plot in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, while their dad’s remains were cremated and put in a mausoleum with his family in the same cemetery. They called the family’s church to arrange a service.
“We forgot to cancel the wedding, so the church was available,” Jockl says.
Today, she and her husband, Peter Jockl, have two young adult sons. Smith and her husband, Bob Smith, have two adult sons and a sixth grandchild on the way. Borchers married his wife, Jennifer, 18 years ago at a resort in Hawaii where his parents were supposed to stay.
“We did bury a bow tie and a hankie on the beach on the morning of Jim’s wedding,” Smith says, noting that her dad often wore bow ties and that her mom had an assortment of hankies.
While the sisters imagine their dad, always able to tackle issues at home, rushing to the cockpit to help, their book includes their brother’s more plausible speculation about the end to their parents’ lives.
“I hope,” Borchers says, “they had a few seconds to look into each other’s eyes.”