Sabena Flight 548 Crashes, Killing the United States Figure Skating Team

There was no indication of trouble on board the plane until it approached the Brussels airport.

The pilot had to circle the airport while waiting for a small plane to clear the runway. Then, according to eyewitnesses, the plane began to climb and bank erratically and crashed suddenly in a field near the hamlet of Berg. The wreckage burst into flames. All aboard were killed instantly. A farmer working in the fields was killed by a piece of aluminum shrapnel, and another farmer had his leg amputated by flying debris from the plane. Baudouin I, King of the Belgians, and his consort, Queen Fabiola, rushed to the scene of the disaster and provided comfort to the families of the local farmers who had died and been injured.

The exact cause of the crash was never determined beyond reasonable doubt, but investigators suspected that the aircraft may have been brought down by a failure of the stabilizer adjusting mechanism.

All 18 athletes of the 1961 U.S. figure skating team and 16 family members, coaches, and officials died in the crash. The dead included, most notably, 9-time U.S. ladies' champion Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters, reigning U.S. ladies' champion Laurence Owen, reigning U.S. pairs champions Maribel Y. Owen and her partner Dudley Richards, reigning U.S. men's champion Bradley Lord, U.S. men's silver medalist Gregory Kelley, U.S. ladies' silver medalist Stephanie Westerfeld, U.S. ladies' bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson and U.S. ice dancing champions Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce. The loss of the U.S. team was considered so catastrophic for the sport that the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships were cancelled.

American President John F. Kennedy issued a statement of condolence from the White House. He was particularly shocked by the disaster. One of the skaters killed in the crash, Dudley Richards, was a personal friend of President Kennedy and his brother Ted Kennedy from summers spent at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Sabena flight SN548 was a transatlantic service from New York to Brussels. The Boeing 707 was on a long approach to runway 20 when, near the runway threshold, power was increased and the gear retracted. The aircraft gained height and made several circles in a left turn. During these turns the bank angle increased more and more until finally the aircraft was in a near vertical bank. The 707 crashed and caught fire.

The rescue apparatus arrived at the field in Berg within minutes, but of course it was too late. Upon impact, Flight 548 had been transformed into a burning morgue, and the only sign of life was a severely wounded German shepherd who had been in the cargo hold. From his fire truck, Oscar De Ryck watched as a police officer shot the animal to put it out of its misery.

De Ryck got as close as possible to the bonfire and climbed to the roof of his truck to man a giant hose of foam, like a machine gun atop a tank, in an attempt to extinguish the blaze. Not even a window in any of the surrounding farmhouses had been rattled, De Ryck noticed, but here in this 200-yard area, there was only destruction.