One thing that we always have to remember is that there is a human face behind the catastrophes that we discuss. Today, we’re lucky enough to have a first hand account of one of these incidents, the crash of North Central Airlines flight 575 from December, 1972. This is a guest post from Todd Overgard. It’s a long read, but it is definitely worth it!
This is my story of the crash of North Central Airlines flight 575 on December 20, 1972.
My name is Todd Overgard. I was 21 years of age and in college at Oklahoma City University, otherwise known as OCU. I was on a full tennis scholarship and we had one of the top NCAA division I tennis teams in the country. On December 19, 1972, I left OCU that evening with one of my dorm’s other residents. Both of us were headed home for the Christmas holidays in his car. We had a long drive ahead of us as he lived in Chicago and my folks lived in Madison, Wisconsin. The plan was that he would drop me at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and I would catch a local flight to Madison. I would fly back to Oklahoma City after the holidays.
I don’t remember exactly when we left, but it was probably between 11pm and midnight. As we took the 800-mile trip, there were several problems that we had to overcome. The biggest of these was a very heavy fog. Sitting in the passenger seat, it looked like we were barreling along at 70 miles per hour without being able to see more than 20 feet in front of the car. It made me extremely nervous. It felt like we could hit another vehicle or fly off the road at any minute. When we would switch positions and I would drive, suddenly I could see pretty far out in front of the car. Each time we switched positions the same phenomenon would occur for each of us. Added to this frightening fog situation was that my friend’s car had a leak where the driver’s side door had been hit in an accident. Each time one of us drove we would be getting a constant blast of cold December air.
This drive took about 12 hours and at around noon we arrived at O’Hare where my friend dropped me off. It became immediately apparent that getting a flight out was going to be difficult. The airport was fogged in. I spent the afternoon trying to get a flight where I could go standby. Back in 1972, standby flights were much easier to catch than they are today, but I was out of luck. There simply were no outbound flights taking off. So I waited for the weather or flight status to change. The fog didn’t change, but in the late afternoon, I was able to get a ticket on North Central Airlines flight 575 which would take me to Madison. I checked one bag and ran through the airport, getting to the gate just in time to catch my flight.
I arrived at my seat in row 7, which was against the window, on the right hand side of the plane. I took off my letter jacket from OCU and put it into the overhead bin before settling into my seat. I buckled my seat belt and awaited take off. The plane was about half full with 41 passengers. There was no one sitting next to me, but there was a woman in the aisle seat. It was just before 6:00pm on December 20th.
I think ours was the first plane to take off since I had been at the airport. As we rolled down the runway during take off, all seemed normal. The plane lifted off at a sharp upward angle, steeper than is typical. Suddenly, there was a bang and simultaneous jolt. I learned later that we had struck a 90 passenger Delta Convair 880 jet that had crossed our runway. We had taken off part of their wing, the stabilizer (tail), and put wheel marks into the top of their fuselage. Our fuselage was broken and I believe it began leaking fuel.
We kept flying upward. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I still didn’t think we had a serious problem. Seconds later, the plane leveled off. Planes do not immediately level off during ascent. This is when I knew we were in trouble! The interior lights flashed and then went off as we descended. The crash was imminent. I braced myself while looking out the window at the airport. To my surprise and delight, the pilot was able to put the plane down relatively smoothly. We skidded along the runway, across a grassy infield, and back on to an intersecting runway. I wasn’t aware until later that we had left our original runway.
As we skidded to a stop, I figured I was going to survive, now that we had avoided a very violent crash landing. However, I was in for another surprise. Just as we came to a stop, every window in the plane went yellow. We were completely engulfed in flames. One passenger was said to have watched his window melt. Now, a complete reversal of emotions took place. I was sure I was going to die. Resigned to my fate, I sat back and relaxed. Strangely, I was not fearful. My resignation led to a very peaceful feeling. A few seconds later, the flames receded from the windows and began to burn through the plane from underneath. I had a chance!
During the crash, I had my hand on the seat belt ready to release it and now I did. I popped up and was able to slide past my fellow passenger. Most of the people were slower to get moving than I was. I got into the aisle and a few rows toward the front before the log jam of exiting passengers blocked my path forward. Someone yelled out “Don’t Panic!” and everyone began to shuffle more calmly toward the front of the plane. Mind you, we did not have much time to get out. The flames were coming up through the plane behind me as I recall, but our march to the front of the plane was in the dark. There were no lights inside the plane that I recall and certainly no visible pathway lights leading to exits. I had always thought that the passengers in the back of the plane were cut off from escaping through the wing or front exits due to the flames. However, I learned later that that was not true.
There was no flight attendant in the back of the plane and the attendant in the front opened the front exit door and jumped. The door was left on it’s side, so we had to step over it. Exit slides were new back in 1972 and our front door slide failed. When I got to the door, there was no choice but to jump directly to the pavement. I would guess it was around 6 to 8 feet. The jump was easy because I was concerned about a possible explosion and wanted to get out of there fast. When I ran maybe 50 yards away and turned around, a female passenger standing nearby asked me “Do you think all of the passengers got off the plane?”. As I looked at where I had just come from, with the flames already 5 times as high as the plane itself, I said “There is no way”. The flames were just too fierce. This was maybe 1 minute after the plane stopped moving.
We waited at a safe distance as the plane turned into a huge bonfire. Firefighters arrived shortly, but they were too late to do much. A bus arrived for the survivors. We sat in it for a good half hour. I had left my prized letter jacket on the plane and was only wearing a thin tee shirt. It was 35ºF at the time and I was getting cold. One passenger came into the bus reeking of jet fuel, so we had to open every window which just made the bus that much colder.
We were driven to the terminal where we followed airport personnel inside. One passenger decided to leave the group before going in. Those leading us tried to stop him, but he forcefully left. Next they took us to a VIP room. I don’t remember interacting with the airport crowds, so we must have come in through areas not open to the public. Just before we got to the room, we were on a second floor looking down at the open terminal through glass windows. O’Hare was packed. Massive crowds below were waiting for their pre-Christmas flights. The fog and now the crash was preventing outbound flights.
We entered the VIP room where I sat on one of the couches in front of a bank of TVs. I don’t remember how many of us there were, but it must have been around 15 based on how many of us would have been left. As I learned, our North Central flight 575 had 15 injured and 10 dead out of the 41 passengers and a crew of 4 on board. Of the dead, 9 passengers died on the plane and 1 died later in the hospital. All of the crew survived. Most of the injured were suffering from smoke inhalation and were taken to local hospitals. The other plane’s passengers escaped with a couple of bumped heads during the collision.
Once in the VIP room, we were given free booze. They let us watch the national news which was broadcasting information on our crash across all channels. Let me tell you, it is very strange watching newscasts about a major catastrophe that you had just lived through. It became a bit surreal. However, all was not good in the VIP room. It turns out that we were being held by the Chicago FBI. They wouldn’t let us call our loved ones which, as you can imagine, was quite frustrating. We couldn’t tell our families that we were safe and my family wouldn’t know because of my standby status. The authorities would not even let us go to the restrooms without being accompanied by an FBI agent. 3 hours later, workmen had installed 5 telephones in the VIP room wall and we waited for our turn to use the phones.
When my turn came, I called my folks. My Dad answered. My Dad, Mom, and 2 younger sisters were home along with my Uncle and Aunt. I told my Dad that I was still at the airport. He said “That’s ok, just get on the next airplane out.”. It was then that I realized that he assumed I was just stuck at the airport. My next words were “I was ON THAT AIRPLANE!”. I told him that I was not getting on another plane that night. The family had been very worried right up until I called. As an aside, one of my fellow passengers did get on a plane later that night to International Falls, Minnesota. That destination was to have been the next stop after Madison for Flight 575. I didn’t think I could get right back on a flight that evening.
I did not understand at the time why the authorities were going though all of this phone business and watching our every movement. Apparently all of this was due to the thought that a hijacking may have taken place. I suspect that they had wire tapped all 5 phones.
A few hours later, 7 of us were provided transportation on a Greyhound sized bus to Madison. We arrived at the Madison bus terminal at about 2:30am on the 21st. My folks were there to pick me up and bring me to their home. Later that afternoon, I did an on-air interview with one of the local television news channels.
I have learned since that this crash led to better exit lighting in all planes and better methods of communication between the controllers and taxiing airplanes.
In the aftermath of the crash, I collected newspaper clippings. I did fly to get back to school, which was difficult. Emotionally, I was having nightmares of being on planes that were falling out of the sky. These lasted about 6 months.
North Central Airlines bought me a new suitcase and maybe some clothes that were lost in the crash. A few years later, I sued the airlines and airport just before the 3-year statute of limitations prevented me from doing so. My Dad had contacted a lawyer who just wanted to process the case quickly. The suit was for $10,000 and was settled for $2,000 of which the lawyer took 1/3rd. Not much reimbursement, but I was thankful to be alive. I still have a neck injury that resulted from the jolt that happened during the collision of the planes. It is not severe, and I had never mentioned it, even when I sued.
It took more than 10 years before I was able to fly again without fear. In my job, I fly quite often both domestically and internationally. I have become quite comfortable flying and always say that it can’t happen twice, whether true or not.
The bottom line is that I had an extraordinary event occur in my life and I am thankful every day that I am alive to tell about it.