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United Flight 553 Crash Survivor Looks Back on the Tragedy 40 Years Later

December 4, 2012

[caption id="attachment_30426" align="alignright" width="300"] Several area newspapers captured McCausland's rescue.[/caption]
Speculation of sabotage surrounded the 1972 crash as ties to the Watergate scandal surfaced
(Ashburn, Va.) - On December 8, 1972, Marguerite McCausland was a 37-year-old flight attendant for United Airlines en route from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Omaha when tragedy struck. The Boeing 737 she was on suddenly fell from the sky, crashing into several Chicago houses just over one mile from Chicago Midway Airport. According to the official National Transportation Safety Board aircraft accident report, probable cause for the accident was due to "the captain's failure to exercise positive flight management during the execution of a nonprecision approach". Of the 61 passengers and crew on board, only 18 survived. Ashby Ponds resident, Marguerite McCausland, was one of those survivors.
To this day, Marguerite distinctly remembers how rapidly the crash occurred. "It all happened so quickly," said Marguerite. "All I can remember is someone saying 'We're going to crash'". Marguerite said that her usual schedule included coast-to-coast trips from D.C. to California, but that she worked flight 553 that day so she could have a longer vacation over the holidays. She also remembers that the weather was less than ideal for flying that day. "There was miserable weather; it was rainy and snowy," said McCausland.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] Chicago firefighter 'Duke' O'Malley rescued McCausland; they were later reunited.[/caption]
According to reports, the aircraft stalled at approximately 500 feet in the air on the descent into Chicago Midway Airport prior to crashing. "I thought it was a bad dream," said McCausland, who recalls not being able to see as she waited, hoping to be rescued after the crash. "I heard a baby crying, and then the crying just stopped." McCausland started to yell for help after she heard a rescuer say, "I don't think anyone is alive in this part of the plane." The plane had split in two pieces, and McCausland ended up being the only survivor in the front half of the plane. McCausland was pulled from the wreckage suffering from third-degree burns, a broken wrist, a crushed thigh, two shattered ankles, and several contusions and lacerations.
Marguerite's husband, Bob, had left work early that day to take the couples cat to the veterinarian when he began to hear reports on the radio of the crash. "Each report became more and more specific," said Bob. "I tried to be optimistic." Then, Bob said he heard the phone ringing as he arrived at their Reston home and was greeted on the other end by a Virginia State Trooper who recommended that he call United Airlines. Bob eventually learned that Marguerite had been on the fated aircraft, but that she had been rescued and was on the way to the hospital. Marguerite was hospitalized for two weeks in Chicago, and flown back to the D.C. area where she spent another three months at Fairfax Hospital.
After the crash, rumors began to swirl about the possibility of sabotage to flight 553. On the plane that day was Dorothy Hunt, wife of Watergate scandal conspirator E. Howard Hunt, with $10,000 in cash in her purse rumored to be a partial payoff for the burglars. Also on the plane was CBS journalist Michelle Clark, who was allegedly working on a story on the Watergate scandal. However, the accident report concluded that "no evidence was found of sabotage or foul play in connection with this accident."
Marguerite returned to work for United Airlines, but as an office employee for two years until returning to school to earn a degree in Computer Information Systems. She worked until retirement for the U.S. Government with the Defense Information Systems Agency. In 2008, Marguerite and Bob moved into Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn from their home in Reston.
Bob and Marguerite still keep Chicago- and D.C.-area newspaper clippings regarding the accident, as well as clips from a number of newscasts chronicling the accident. Several of the newspaper clippings show photos of Marguerite being rescued by a firefighter, with whom she was later reunited. Looking back forty years ago, Marguerite says that the accident did not make her fearful to fly. "Only in bad weather do I get a little bit anxious," said Marguerite.
About Ashby Ponds: Ashby Ponds, one of 16 retirement communities managed by Erickson Living, is situated on a scenic 132-acre campus in Ashburn, Virginia (approximately 30 miles west of Washington, D.C.). The community is home to over 700 residents and is filled with fascinating people and fantastic opportunities. With over 100 resident-run and resident-driven clubs and groups, an indoor pool, a fitness club, transportation services, 24-hour security, and flexible dining options, life at Ashby Ponds offers a true sense of community and is an exciting alternative to the typical retirement community. More information about Ashby Ponds can be found at: