Tribune Print Share Text

Into the eye of a (political) storm?

Plane crash survivor shares her story

Created date

August 21st, 2012

Forty years ago, rumors of political scandal swirled surrounding the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Almost immediately, attention focused on President Richard Nixon and his administration for attempting to cover up their involvement. Amidst these rumors and speculations, 37-year-old Marguerite McCausland left the Washington, D.C., area home she shared with her husband Bob for work as a United Airlines flight attendant on December 8, 1972. Rather than focusing on the intrigue of the day, Marguerite was thinking about the upcoming Christmas holiday. My usual schedule included coast-to-coast trips from D.C. to California, but I chose to work on Flight 533 that day so I could have a longer vacation over the holidays, she says. However, within a matter of hours, Marguerite s decision would put her right in the middle of the blossoming Watergate storm.

Life changing moment

On the morning of December 8, United Airlines Flight 533 left Washington National Airport on route to Omaha, Nebr., via Chicago Midway International Airport. It would never make its final destination in Omaha. After the flight crew was told to go around and abort their first landing attempt on runway 31L at Midway Airport, the aircraft struck trees and then roofs along W. 71st Street before crashing into a house at 3772 W. 70th Place. Forty-three of the 61 passengers and crew were killed when the plane burst into flames at 2:28 p.m. CST. Two Chicago residents also died in the crash. To this day, Marguerite distinctly remembers how rapidly the crash occurred. It all happened so quickly, she says. All I can remember is someone saying, We re going to crash. I thought it was a bad dream. Marguerite also recalls not being able to see after the plane crashed. I heard a baby crying, and then the crying just stopped, she says. I started to yell for help after I heard a rescuer say, I don t think anyone is alive in this part of the plane. That was frightening. The Boeing 737 had split into two pieces. Marguerite was the only survivor in the front half of the plane. She was eventually pulled from the wreckage, suffering from third-degree burns, a broken wrist, a crushed thigh, two shattered ankles, and several contusions and lacerations.

Waiting for news

Marguerite s husband Bob had left work early that day to take the couples cat to the vet when he began to hear reports on the radio of the crash. Each report became more and more specific, he says. I tried to be optimistic. I did not want to believe it was Marguerite s flight that had crashed. However, as the reports got more specific, I could not deny the fact. When I arrived home the phone was ringing and it was the state police telling me to call United. United Airlines informed Bob that a supervisor was on his way to the house. Fortunately, he brought the good news that Marguerite was out of the airplane and on her way to the hospital. However, Bob did not know the extent of Marguerite s injuries. That evening United Airlines arranged for Bob and his brother-in-law to fly to Chicago.

More than meets the eye?

Almost as soon as Bob began his flight west, rumors began swirling about the possibility of sabotage to Flight 533 by government agencies. Among the passengers killed were Illinois Congressman George W. Collins and Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. Also killed was Michele Clark, a correspondent for CBS News, who was allegedly working on a story about the Watergate scandal. At that time of the crash, Hunt s purse contained $10,585 in cash, which was quickly rumored to be a partial payoff for the burglars. She had also purchased flight insurance for $250,000 prior to boarding the flight. However, 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 non-precision approach. It concluded that no evidence was found of sabotage or foul play in connection with this accident. But rumors and political intrigue were left to others as Marguerite focused on healing. The recovery was long and difficult and has left residual effects, she says. After two weeks in a Chicago hospital, she flew back to the D.C. area where she spent another three months at Fairfax Hospital.

Moving on

In time, with the impeachment and resignation of President Nixon, Watergate news and conspiracy speculation grew stale. Marguerite returned to work for United Airlines for two years as an office employee. She then earned a degree in computer information systems and worked until retirement for the U.S. government with the Defense Information Systems Agency. Since moving toAshby Pondsin 2008, Marguerite and Bob maintain a busy social calendar complete with Wii bowling competitions, exercise classes, and swimming. People are so friendly and helpful, says Marguerite. I feel like I m back in my small town. The couple still keeps 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 fireman Duke O Malley, with whom she was later reunited. With the 40th anniversary of the accident approaching, Marguerite says that the accident did not make her fearful to fly. Only in bad weather do I get a little bit anxious, she says.