hat was this? Flashes out of the blue? Up there dotting the crystalline Belgian sky?
The farmer's wife couldn't be sure. But as she looked to the heavens just before 10 o'clock on the morning of Feb. 15, 1961, she thought she could see some passengers taking pictures from the mighty Boeing 707 whose descent had captured her attention while she harvested fields of chicory.
If so, this was role reversal. Many of those aboard Sabena Flight 548 - bound from New York to Prague, with a stopover scheduled for Brussels - were more accustomed to having pictures taken of them than by them. The 61-passenger manifest included the entire 18-member US figure skating team, headed for the world championships in Czechoslovakia that would begin a week hence, plus 16 of their relatives, friends, and coaches.
Then again, perhaps it was not so unlikely that these public figures would be acting like gawking tourists. They were relatively new to the celebrity business, having qualified for the world team by finishing among the top three in men's and ladies' singles, pairs, and ice dancing a fortnight ago at the US championships in Colorado Springs. They represented a fresh crop of American figure skating, all the national champions from the previous year having retired. Usually, the skaters traveled individually or in small groups to the worlds. But this crew - including 10 members of the Skating Club of Boston, four of them US champions - had requested to go as a unit. They wanted familiar companionship on their first foray into Europe, especially behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. Why, even their marquee member - ladies' singles champion Laurence Owen of Winchester, Mass., whose beaming picture adorned the cover of the Feb. 13 issue of Sports Illustrated on display at newsstands in airports across the planet - was an inexperienced queen, merely 16 years old.
But what was this? At the same time as the farmer's wife, 25-year-old Marcel Verhoeven, a reporter for a small weekly suburban newspaper, was gazing skyward from his bike 4-5 kilometers from Belgian National Airport. He had grown accustomed to the sight of incoming aircraft, and he hadn't seen a plane acting like this since he was a frightened boy watching World War II bombing maneuvers.
In this case, the plane was the bomb. A pilot on the ground, Jacques Genot, could tell that was the inevitable, horrible fate awaiting Flight 548. Filing his flight plan in the airport briefing room because his was the next craft scheduled for takeoff, Genot saw the Boeing dipping and ascending like a bucking bronco, the pilot obviously fighting the instrument panel for control. Genot cringed as he watched Flight 548 abort its approach to Runway 20 and try to land on adjacent Runway 25 Right, which wasn't operational. He realized what pilot Louis Lambrechts was doing: desperately undertaking a shorthand alternative because the mechanical malfunction - involving the wing spoilers, perhaps, or the tail stabilizers - was preventing a normal landing.
At nearby St. Servatjus Catholic Church, the parish priest, Father Joseph Cruyt, had been startled by the strange sound Flight 548 was making as it twice tried to land. Then he watched in amazement as it seemingly stood straight up in the air, as if rearing on its hind legs . . .
And disappeared. For an instant, there was nothing for any of them to see. Then from behind the wooded area bordering the airport, there was the cacophonous sound of the giant craft ripping into the farmland, followed by the sight of a huge mushroom of fire reaching above the trees into the sky. It was like an atomic explosion, thought a member of the airport fire brigade, Oscar De Ryck, as he raced his truck alongside those of his colleagues from 10 other units to the inferno at 10:05 Brussels time, 4:05 a.m. EST.
Breaking the news
The doorbell rang at 195 High Street in Winchester shortly after 7 a.m. This represented an early wake-up call for 80-year-old Gertrude Vinson, accustomed though she was to the helter-skelter bustle that often prevailed in the rambling brick and white clapboard colonial where she presided over the so-called First Family of Figure Skating: her daughter, Maribel Vinson Owen, and granddaughters, Laurence and Maribel Jr. But the callers - Dr. Hollis Albright and Gertrude's friends Mary Louise Wright and Mary Goldblatt - wanted to make sure she received the devastating news as gently as possible. Bulletins on the crash of Flight 548, which left no survivors among the 72 on board and also took the life of a Belgian farmer who had been struck by some shrapnel of wreckage, were hitting the television and radio airwaves. The surprise visitors to 195 High wanted to spare ''Grammy'' Vinson the jolt they had experienced when they heard.
First Albright administered her a sedative, though under false pretenses; to avoid Gertrude's suspicion, the group invented a story that Maribel Sr. had wanted her mother to have a flu shot while the family was in Prague for the world championships, where Maribel would be coaching Laurence and national pairs champion Maribel Jr.
After it had taken effect, the visitors began discussing in general terms the perils of air travel, which always had caused Gertrude great concern. The vague introduction was of no use; Wright was struck by Gertrude's emphatic response even before the elderly woman knew her family had been wiped out in the crash: ''If one's gone, I hope they're all gone, because one can't live without the others.''
Indeed, they had appeared a seamless entity while ascending to the top of figure skating.
At 49, Maribel Sr. was arguably the most protean figure in the sport, a former Olympic bronze medalist and world silver medalist who had won nine US singles and six national pairs titles before embarking on a 15-year career as an ice show headliner. Interspersed was a three-year run in the early '30s as the first woman sportswriter at the New York Times, and after she returned exclusively to her first love, figure skating, Maribel became a legendary coach. Her proteges included Tenley Albright - Hollis's daughter and the 1956 Olympic gold medalist.
A gravel-voiced, larger-than-life bon vivant, Maribel was tireless in pursuit of her craft. She had to be. Since the death of her ex-husband, Canadian skater Guy Owen, in 1952, she had been raising 20-year-old Maribel Jr. and Laurence as a single parent and worked seven days a week, dawn through dusk, teaching in rinks from Lynn to Worcester, to support them. Starting out in Berkeley, Calif., where their parents had been based, both girls developed a love for the ice at an early age - ''a good thing,'' said Maribel, ''or they wouldn't have seen much of their mother.'' But she was, in fact, a devoted parent who just happened to develop her two most beloved pupils into world-class skaters.
That was especially true of Laurence, the heir apparent as world and Olympic champion, officially anointed as such by SI. Having gained early acceptance to Radcliffe, the Winchester High senior was a superior student, an aspiring writer who already was authoring sensitive poetry. Now it had seemed her literary efforts and her life might take on another dimension. In the last two weeks, she had begun a tentative courtship with 20-year-old Bobby Brewer, a former Olympic singles skater from Los Angeles.
Romance of a more progressive nature had blossomed for Laurence's big sister. Maribel Jr., 20 - a senior at Boston University who intended to teach school - had won the US pairs with her partner of three years, Dudley Richards. She also apparently had developed something more enduring with him. Richards had confided to his friend Brewer that after returning from Prague, he and Maribel Jr. were going to announce their engagement. Her relationship with Richards may have seemed a bombshell to some, because he was considerably older - 29 - and always had been regarded as an unofficial member of the Owen clan, a surrogate big brother.
Now, the day after Valentine's, the possibility of romance, like the romance of possibility, had been incinerated in a Belgian field.
The ritual of doom was repeated in various forms at households throughout the Boston area. Ted Kennedy was on his way to work as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney when he found out about his best friend and former Harvard freshman roommate, Richards. The future US senator's reaction, like that of so many others, was disbelief.
He and Richards had hooked up as adolescents while summering at neighboring vacation homes in Hyannis Port; there Richards also had become friendly with Ted's big brother Jack, who less than four weeks before the Brussels disaster had been inaugurated as president of the United States.
Prague had loomed as Richards's last hurrah in skating. A native of Barrington, R.I., and rising young executive at the Nordblom Boston real estate firm, he had taken his vacation to coincide with the nationals and worlds. His skating accomplishments had been sufficiently significant to make Richards only the third man in Harvard history to earn a major ''H'' without competing in a varsity sport; Grand Slam golfer Bobby Jones and two-time Olympic figure skating gold medalist Dick Button were the others.
Ted Kennedy had kept track of his old roomie's exploits. He made a good-luck phone call to Richards on the eve of the team's departure for Prague, where Richards was to serve as team captain.
His friend's death proved an eerie precursor for Kennedy; three years later, he would be seriously injured in a plane crash. Decades after that, he could only speculate whether Richards had experienced the same reaction during the plane's plunge as he did: ''You get a tremendous shot of adrenaline as you anticipate what's going to happen. You don't think of dying so much as that you've lost control of your life.''
Bradley Lord's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Roy F. Lord of Swampscott, had been at New York's Idlewild Airport to see off their 21-year-old son - the newly crowned US men's singles champion - at 7:20 the previous night when the team had taken off. For Roy Lord, this was the culmination of a career spawned 11 years earlier, when he'd taken Bradley to Boston Garden to see the Ice Follies and the enchanted youngster had begged the father to get him skates. Even though he intended to make commercial art his livelihood, Bradley had taken a sabbatical as a sophomore at BU in order to devote himself full-time to skating.
Now the Lords had heard the shattering news on the radio, and Roy's brother-in-law spent the day consoling him. Meanwhile, Bradley's mother was in denial, refusing to believe the reports that by now consumed the newscasts and evening papers.
In Newton Centre, there was double heartbreak for the Kelley family. Not only had they lost 16-year-old Gregory, the runner-up to Lord at the nationals, but also 28-year-old Nathalie. She had taken a leave of absence as head of the science department at Ashland High in order to live as her brother's chaperone in Colorado Springs, where he had transferred from the Skating Club of Boston. This was supposed to be a mere interlude, for Nathalie intended to resume teaching and Gregory wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a doctor.
So it went around the country.
The revelation was particularly traumatizing to the Pierces of Indianapolis and Sherblooms of Los Angeles, because were it not for a makeshift alliance, their children wouldn't have been on the plane.
Larry Pierce's fellow Indianapolis resident and regular ice dancing partner, Marilyn Meeker, had broken an ankle the previous December, making it unlikely the duo could compete in 1961. Realizing that the skating clock was running out on 24-year-old Larry, Pierce's parents beseeched the Sherblooms to loan their 18-year-old daughter, Diane, as Meeker's replacement for the year. Diane Sherbloom had no intention of competing in '61. But the persistent Pierces promised to house and chaperone her like a daughter, and Diane and her parents finally relented. She and Pierce went on to win the nationals.
That filled Larry with such bravado that during the team picture on the stairway to the plane just before takeoff from Idlewild Runway 22, he had held up his right hand, fingers aloft, a private joke that in his circle of friends represented an obscene gesture multiplied by five.
The Ramsays of Detroit also had to deal with the chilling knowledge that their 16-year-old son, Douglas, had become a casualty of happenstance.
A mite at 5 feet 3 inches, 116 pounds, Ramsay had finished fourth at the nationals, one place below world qualification. But the youngster, who had been known as the ''Dick Button Jr.'' of the Detroit Skating Club from the time he was 6, had won a lottery ticket of sorts to Prague. Tim Brown, the third-place finisher at Colorado Springs, had experienced severe chest pains probably related to rheumatic fever, and doctors had decided he shouldn't risk the stress of long-distance travel and intense competition. So Ramsay, who wanted dearly to make a career of skating and was delighted with this breakthrough opportunity, was elevated to Brown's place.
At his home in Glendora, Calif., the irony hit Brown like a dagger. He tearfully told reporters, ''Now they are all gone. They were all close friends. I have known some of them for 10 years. I guess I'll write some of the parents, but what can you say?''
Dealing with grief
There were no words of consolation for the alumni. Carol Heiss and David Jenkins, the 1960 US and Olympic singles gold medalists, had headed off into gilded retirement but were nonetheless deeply affected by the demise of Flight 548.
Heiss was in Hollywood making a film, ''Snow White and the Three Stooges,'' when she got a predawn call from her sobbing brother-in-law, Jenkins, who told her, ''They're all dead.''
As soon as she figured out what Jenkins meant, Heiss hastily hung up the phone. She knew that her former coach, Pierre Brunet, had intended to board Flight 548 with his latest prodigy, Canadian singles champ Don Jackson. Dialing the Brunet household in Canada, Heiss reached the coach's wife and said frantically, ''Andree, this is Carol.''
Knowing instinctively the reason for Heiss's call, Andree Brunet said without hesitation, ''They didn't take the flight. Pierre decided they needed another day to get ready.''
That bit of relief was dwarfed by cumulative grief, for Heiss had been friends with most of those aboard Flight 548 for a half-dozen years. She had roomed with Laurence Owen at the Squaw Valley Olympics the previous year and had told her, ''My time is over. I'll be looking forward to seeing you on the podium in the future.''
Now there was no future, and Heiss took the news hard. She called the studio and said she didn't feel up to working that day; both film executives and her co-stars the Stooges advised her to stay home.
Jenkins got no such respite. He was in Boston touring with the Ice Follies in order to pay for medical school, and he, too, had numerous friends on the plane. Unlike the case with Heiss, there was no reprieve for Jenkins's former coach, Edi Scholdan. The former pro at Boston Arena who now was based in Colorado Springs, Scholdan had planned a Boston reunion with Jenkins for this very day. Coach and star pupil hadn't seen each other since Squaw Valley, and Jenkins was eagerly anticipating a relaxing renewal of acquaintances.
But the day before, Scholdan, who was coaching Greg Kelley and ladies' singles runner-up Steffi Westerfeld, had called Jenkins and told him, ''I'm sorry, David, but I can't make it. These kids have never been abroad, and I really should go with them.'' So instead of dining casually with Scholdan, who hated to fly, Jenkins spent Feb. 15 skating three mournful Follies shows at Boston Garden, all the while thinking of the man who ''had been like a father to me.''
The coach in fact had a 13-year-old son, Jimmy Scholdan, who was on the plane to see the European sights, including Edi's birthplace, Vienna.
When Edi's duties in Prague were finished, the Scholdans had intended to travel in tandem with another father-son entry, Edward LeMaire and 13-year-old Richard of Rye, N.Y. Edward, who belonged to the Skating Club of Boston, was an esteemed skating judge, but this trip was to be a busman's holiday. He was going to the worlds as a spectator, and the real purpose of the trip was to show Richard, a brilliant student, foreign lands. Richard's eighth-grade teachers had agreed such a trip could be more educational than classwork, so on the evening of Feb. 14, the LeMaires had stood in their driveway and bade farewell before heading to Idlewild.
Richard's 10-year-old sister, Diana, hugged her father and told him she loved him. But her goodbye with Richard had been sibling casual. The big brother had punched Diana on the arm and said, ''See you, squirt.'' Diana would forever lament that she hadn't ignored potential embarrassment and given her brother a loving embrace. Never again would she miss an opportunity to express her emotions for a family member or friend whom she would not be seeing for a while: ''People who know me know that I'm not afraid to hug someone and tell them I love them.''
Elsewhere in New York, another child was an incidental victim of the carnage. Husband and wife Robert and Patricia Dineen, third-place US ice dancers, had been married for two years and were the parents of an 8-month-old son, Robert Jr. Departing for Idlewild, the couple left the baby in the care of Robert Sr.'s brother. After the crash, Robert Jr. was adopted by his uncle, and it would be years before the boy learned who his parents had been. And how they had died.
Gone in a flash
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.
Another firefighter, Victor Brouckmans, surveyed the detritus of death - the charred skeletons and splintered wreckage and skates and shreds of costumes and wristwatches and passport scraps sprinkled throughout the chicory fields and trees. He fainted on the spot. After regaining consciousness, Brouckmans transferred to another airport unit, never to work a fire again.
On the fringe of the cathedral of flames, Father Cruyt stood by the roadway and administered a general absolution to the deceased. As the corpses were carted from the field and placed in Red Cross wagons to be transferred to a temporary mortuary at the airport, Cruyt performed Extreme Unction - the last rites - with the holy oil he had grabbed from the church before dashing to the scene.
He hadn't been the first on hand, nor had the rescuers. A farm woman, 41-year-old Bertha Goovaerts, had been cutting a crop of salad herbs - endives - in a building across the way. She hadn't looked up from her work, but she had heard the explosion. When she turned, she saw that her nephew, farmer and noted amateur cyclist Theo de Laet, had been killed by a flying piece of aluminum. Nearby, another field worker, Marcel Lauwers, had lost a leg when hit with debris and was now a rolling log of flame on the ground. Goovaerts raced to him and stripped off his clothes - she didn't know how she avoided burning herself in the process - to save his life.
Otherwise, there was nothing but remnants.
It would take days to identify all the dead, drape them in blue blankets, then place them in caskets, and return the bodies to their homes. E. Kendall Kelley of the US Figure Skating Association, who had been vacationing in Vienna and intended to meet the team in Prague, would take a mordant detour to Brussels to serve as the American point man in the identification process. He would be assisted by a disaster squad dispatched from Washington by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Further assistance would be provided by the new US president. A few days after the crash, Muriel LeMaire - who had befriended John F. Kennedy while on a European cruise as a young woman - called the White House directly and asked for the new president because she was distressed at how long it was taking to return her son's body. Whether he remembered Muriel or not, JFK took the call immediately and set in motion procedures to cut through the red tape.
Investigations by Belgian national authorities, the US Federal Aviation Agency, and the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Agency would yield no definitive cause for the crash. The spoilers or stabilizers were the most plausible culprits, but the exact reason would remain a mystery. It could only be conjectured that the passengers knew they were in grave danger because many of the bodies were discovered in the crouching position, indicating they were prepared for a crash landing.
The only solace appeared to be that death had been instantaneous and that there had been no undue suffering. Quelling rumors of mass dismemberment, E. Kendall Kelley would relay this information to USFSA president F. Ritter Shumway, who would pass it along to the families, for whom he was serving as the conduit to Belgium. Shumway would recommend that despite the disaster, the world championships proceed as scheduled. But he would be overruled by the International Skating Union, which canceled them out of deference to the dead; Prague would host them instead in 1962.
Back in the United States, a grim routine was beginning, a seemingly relentless procession of wakes and funerals as surviving relatives and friends paid tribute to one victim after another.
Memorials on both a private and widespread scale would abound.
A fellow skater and friend of the victims, future US Olympic Committee fixture Paul George of Wellesley, Mass., would name his first daughter Laurence, in honor of the ethereal young skater he had taught to drive and escorted to her first dance.
Several people would pursue careers involved with skating as tributes to the casualties. Frank Muckian, cousin and best friend of Bradley Lord, would become a coach. Likewise Barbara Ann Roles, who had not been aboard the plane only because she had retired as a singles skater in 1961.
After 12 years away from the ice because she felt it would be too painful to put her mother through any more skating experiences, Diana LeMaire became a judge. Partly, it was from love of the sport, because she had ''never really left the rink in my heart.'' And partly, it was in hopes that people would see the surname and ask if she were any relation to Edward LeMaire, perpetuating the legacy. It was done with the approval of her mother, who was thrilled when Diana advised her of her desires.
On a more public note, memorial services would be held from Brussels to New York, where the families gathered at the Hotel Roosevelt in the main ballroom May 6 to hear Shumway deliver a stirring eulogy. Telegrams of condolence would be sent by President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
Most significantly, the 1961 World Figure Skating Team Memorial Fund would be established by the USFSA. During a memorial show at Boston Garden headlined by Dick Button, the skaters would solicit donations at intermission. Tina Noyes, the 12-year-old US novice champion from Arlington who considered herself ''like a mascot'' to the older skaters, would put on skate guards at intermission and pass a tin can row by row through the Garden crowd. From these humble roots would develop a fund that to this day distributes more than $200,000 annually to skaters in need.
Back in the Berg graveyard, there were no thoughts of the grandiose, only the grisly. Years later, Oscar De Ryck would remember that after 14-hour days among the ruins, he would disinfect his hands twice on doctor's orders, shower before leaving work, shower again and change his clothes and underwear when he arrived home, yet ''I still had the smell of death on me.''
It carried a different scent an ocean away. As the news spread Feb. 15, skaters seemed inexplicably, inexorably drawn to the hangar structure that housed the Skating Club of Boston. Sally Jones, who skated at the club and knew many of the dead, noticed the crowd growing by the hour. She looked out at the ice, where the Zamboni had groomed it with a pristine smoothness minus the bumps and grooves that often pocked the surface. A shaft of sunlight beamed through the window, as if providing a spotlight. But none of the skaters ventured onto the ice, though they were welcome to. It was as if they didn't want to intrude on the impromptu memorial tableau.
And there was one other thing. Club coach Cecilia Colledge had sent a huge wreath of carnations. It stood over by the vending machines. But Lorraine Hanlon, the US junior champion who had passed up the Prague trip because it would conflict with her studies, noted that its effect was far-ranging.
No matter where one stood in the club, observed Hanlon, ''It smelled like a funeral.''
Marking the lost generation of skaters who never got a chance to leave their niche in the ice.
Globe correspondents Francine Cunningham and Gene Castellano contributed to this report.