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Victims of Flight 191 crash remembered at memorial dedication

Tim Chen Downers Grove copies name his aunt VictoriHaider who perished during dedicatimemorial 274 victims crash American Airlines Flight 191

Tim Chen, of Downers Grove, copies the name of his aunt, Victoria Haider, who perished, during the dedication of a memorial to the 274 victims of the crash of American Airlines Flight 191, on Oct. 15 in Des Plaines. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 21, 2011 9:30AM

As planes soared overhead on a crisp fall afternoon, young students inspired a crowd of a thousand to join together to declare: “We remember.”

Decatur Classical School on Chicago’s North Side hosted a dedication ceremony Oct. 15 at Lake Park in Des Plaines for a memorial to honor the lives of 273 victims of a tragic plane crash 32 years ago.

“It’s been a long time,” said Tim Chen, of Downers Grove. “I was 18 when this happened. It seemed like it was a lifetime ago.”

Chen’s aunt, Victoria Chen Haider, was a passenger of the fateful American Airlines Flight 191. As head editor of Playboy, the 34-year-old was headed to California on a business trip with two colleagues. She had just celebrated her only son’s first birthday.

“The day it happened, it was just stunning,” Chen said. “There really hasn’t been any closure. This is the first time I’ve seen any other families. There’s a sense of community.”

“This will bring peace to the family,” added Beth, Chen’s wife.

Roses, cards and photos adorned the new stone memorial engraved with the names of the lives lost in what has become the worst aviation accident in U.S. history outside of a terrorist attack.

On May 25, 1979, the Los Angeles-bound flight from O’Hare International Airport crashed during its takeoff after an engine dislodged. An investigation found the cause to be deficiencies in the DC-10 plane’s design and flawed maintenance procedures.

All 258 passengers on board, the 13-member flight crew and two victims on the ground, died. They were “loved ones, souls bound together on a journey to a better place,” said Des Plaines Mayor Martin Moylan at the dedication.

Moylan said: “For many of you this is wound that will never heal. For others there has been a quest for closure.

“Let each one of us in our own way celebrate the lives of those lost and find comfort in the spirit of this gathering in this special place.”

Joel Green, his wife, Martha, and their two sons traveled from Evergreen, Colo., for the ceremony. His brothers, Michael and Jeremy Green, came in from Boston with their families.

On that spring day in 1979, the three siblings lost parents Alan and Judy Green. Joel, the oldest, was 11.

“What happened to my husband and his brothers was tragic,” Martha Green said.

Two weeks before their sudden death, Alan and Judy had taken their boys to Death Valley National Park and to see the Great Smokey Mountains.

On Oct. 15, Joel Green and his family wore buttons and held a framed photo from what became Green’s last trip with his parents.

Kenneth Alan, 13, named after his grandfather, hugged his dad as they took a picture in front of the Flight 191 memorial.

“This is painful but I think it’s really good for all of them,” said Martha Green. She said the children who pushed for the memorial will be “people to look out for.”

Sixth-graders at Decatur Classical Academy spearheaded the memorial project two years ago after learning about Flight 191 from Assistant Principal Kim Jockl, who lost both parents to the accident.

After graduating from the elementary school in 2010, the students continued to follow through on their civic project to create the first and only memorial for Flight 191. They enlisted the help of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, of Evanston, state Sen. Dan Kotowski, of Park Ridge, the Des Plaines Park District, the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago, and numerous individuals and local businesses.

“We realized that memorializing such tragedies is necessary in the grieving process, and came to understand that when someone you love becomes a memory, that memory is a treasure,” students stated during a choral reading.

Father Michael Zaniolo, O’Hare airport chaplain, said the students were “motivated by a selfless love of neighbors.”

After a reading of the victims’ names by students, Zaniolo lead a prayer and scattered dirt from the crash site onto the memorial.

“Finally, there’s some remembrance,” Chen said. “Finally.”

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