Man who survived Midway jet crash recalls day, shows piece of plane he's kept for 50 years

Thursday marks 50 years since United Airlines Flight 553 crash at Midway Airport killed 45

Sarah Schulte Image
Thursday, December 8, 2022
Man recalls day plane crashed into Chicago neighborhood, killing 45 people: 'It sounded like a gas explosion'
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United Airlines Flight 553 crashed on approach to Midway Airport 50 years ago Thursday, killing 45 people.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Thursday marks 50 years since a United Airlines Flight 553 crashed on approach to Midway Airport, slamming into a Chicago neighborhood just southeast of the airport.

The Boeing 737 crashed into several homes near 70th Place and Lawndale Avenue, as well as neighboring streets.

Bungalows have been rebuilt and life went on in the Southwest Side neighborhood, but the sound of the plane crashing into the ground stays with Evan Cotter Junior 50 years later.

"From the time I heard the airplane to the time it impacted the house was about five seconds and just before it crashed, you could tell the plane was too low to be that loud. I knew that plane was in trouble," Cotter recalled. "It sounded like the neighborhood was exploding, it sounded like a gas explosion."

Just 12 years old at the time, Cotter had just returned home from school. He was changing clothes to go play hockey when he heard a plane that sounded way too low. Five seconds later, United Flight 553 slammed into the neighborhood, killing 43 of the 61 people on board. Two others on the ground also died.

"My mother was actually in the kitchen and she saw the tail of plane go by through the kitchen window as it went through the house next door and it crashed through a row of houses across the street," Cotter said.

The home next door and three others across the street were destroyed, killing 2 of Cotter's neighbors. The flight was on its way from Washington D.C to Nebraska with a scheduled stop at Chicago's Midway.

Besides Cotter's two neighbors who were killed, the wife of a Watergate organizer, a CBS News national correspondent and a Chicago Congressman from the West Side were among the 43 people on board who died.

Dorothy Hunt was carrying $10,000 in $100 bills at the time of the crash, spawning conspiracy theories that the money was connected to Watergate and that the plane was sabotaged.

Cotter said he and his mother would have been killed had the right wing that struck the back half of their home not fallen off.

"The right wing struck a large portion, about 14 feet struck back of the house, fortunately it fell off and that is what spared my mother and I," he said.

"Debris sprayed everywhere. Everything in my house went sideways," Cotter said. "A piece of the airplane flew through my sisters bedroom window, which I still have this today."

For 50 years, Cotter has kept the piece in an old box, reminding him of a horrible day that now has become a very distant memory.

"It was kinda of personal, it's not like we found outside, it was in the house, so my family said let's just keep it, it was a piece of memorabilia, it just reminds us of just how bad the experience really was," Cotter said.

Cotter may not think about the crash anymore, but the 62 year old who still lives on W. 70th Place will never forget it.

"For a number of years, I had nightmares for a long time," Cotter said. "Like they say, time heals all. It's been a long time, I don't think about it much anymore."