United Airlines 553: Survivor recounts tragic flight

The newspaper clips are old and yellowed, but Marguerite McCausland can still feel it.

McCausland was a flight attendant on a United Airlines jet that 40 years ago crashed into a Chicago neighborhood and burst into flames as it approached Midway airport. Of the 61 aboard, only 18 survived.

United 553 took off from Washington National Airport here around 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. By all accounts, it started out completely normal, completely uneventful.

“I recognized that we were in danger, and I remember somebody saying, 'we're going to crash,’” McCausland says.

McCausland, strapped in her seat near the cockpit, blacked out. She came to buried in burning debris and heard a baby nearby:

“The baby was crying. And then there was dead silence. There was no sound at all,” she says.

Her husband Bob, back in Reston, heard it on the radio:

“That must be somebody else. Not until it started getting very specific did it really hit me,” Bob McCausland says.

But McCausland was lucky. Bricks from the house they hit formed a firewall around her.

She was rescued wearing the same pin that today hangs on a plaque in her home.

Flight 553 made even more headlines amid rumors of government sabotage. The wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt was on board, carrying $10,000 in her purse. Some suggested a payoff for the Watergate burglars.

Dorothy Hunt was killed and the NTSB ultimately ruled pilot error caused the crash, not foul play.

McCausland recovered from two crushed ankles, a broken arm and 3rd degree burns and got out of the business.

But she and Bob still fly, traveling the world.

“If the flight is a little bumpy or it doesn't seem right to me, I get white knuckles,” she says. “I just hang on to the chair for dear life.”

And now, living quietly at Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn, counting her blessings.

“I was very fortunate. And I'm very lucky to be here,” she says. “Life is precious. Live it the best while you're here.”