First came the blown left engine.
Then an eerie silence as the spiraling jetliner arced back toward the ground.
Just 31 seconds after takeoff, the plane landed with a boom and a mountain of fire.
Just like that, 40 years ago Saturday, 273 lives were taken — all 258 passengers, 13 crew members and two men on the ground — in the deadliest air crash in U.S. history until the 9/11 terror attacks.
Devastation followed, with debris and unidentifiable human remains littering a field near the northwest corner of O’Hare International Airport, where American Airlines Flight 191 crashed May 25, 1979, just after departing for Los Angeles.
Among those killed were Stephen and Susan Lang, a married couple raising two young children in a small town called Bull Valley near northwest suburban Woodstock.
Four decades later, their children Joy and Bryson Lang stood at a 40th anniversary remembrance event Saturday afternoon with hundreds of others whose family members died in the crash. The siblings read a dozen victims’ names as part of the ceremony, including those of their own parents.
“When you’re as young I was — I was 3 1⁄2 when I lost them — it’s hard to make sense of it growing up and understand that there’s a bigger network out there that’s dealing with the same thing,” Joy Lang told the Chicago Sun-Times after the ceremony. “It’s part of the healing process, but you don’t really get to realize it until you’re an adult.”
“You sort of live with it yourself,” said Bryson Lang, who was 8 when his parents died. “So when you’re with a bunch of people who went through the same shared experience ... you see how far out it reaches people. It’s one thing to talk to a stranger and say, ‘This is what happened,’ and they say, ‘Oh, I remember that.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘We all experienced that.”
Before various people, including the Langs, took turns reading victims’ names, a bell was rung 31 times at 3:04 p.m. — the time of the crash 40 years ago — to signify the 31 seconds the plane was in the air from takeoff to crash.
Bryson Lang said he has “hundreds of little memories” of his parents, who were a “young, energetic couple.” Joy Lang said her memories are more “snapshot” because she was so young, but she remembers the family’s home in Bull Valley.
After the event Saturday at Lake Park in Des Plaines, the siblings met with others whose parents were on the flight. Lake Park is home to a memorial to the victims — a short wall with names etched into brick — that was dedicated in 2011 about 2 miles east of the crash site.
The Lang siblings, who now each have two children of their own, were at that dedication eight years ago.
Ray DeVito, though, had never been to this sort of gathering before Saturday.
DeVito was 24 when he dropped off his girlfriend of almost two years, Debra Moruzi, at O’Hare for her flight to Los Angeles. DeVito, now 64, remembers suspecting something was wrong when he saw white mist spewing from the left engine before he watched the jet takeoff and dip back toward the ground.
“I actually ran out of the airport, and I saw the smoke when I got out, and I ran directly to the crash site.” DeVito said. “There was so much confusion, I was able to walk right past the police and the guys telling me to get out.”
DeVito said Moruzi, who was two years younger than him, had a “wonderful personality and charm. She was a lovely woman, and she really was a delight.”
Feeling the heartbreak of losing his girlfriend, DeVito stayed single for a few decades before getting married for the first time in 2003.
“I was not really ready,” DeVito said. “It threw a curve ball in my life.”