The morning after
The mystery of what went wrong aboard Sabena Flight 548 began even before the plane crashed. The crew didn't communicate with ground control in the flight's final minutes, and, for some unknown reason the pilot retracted the plane's landing gear on his initial approach. One theory is that another aircraft was too close to the intended runway. After the aborted approach, the plane turned left and circled the airport three times, bucking and banking at an increasingly steep angle. Then it went vertical, spiraled downward and exploded on impact.
Passengers' bodies were found hunched over in the crash position. The destruction of life was complete, yet some possessions survived, including airline tickets, jackets with USA patches on them and a partially burned copy of that week's Sports Illustrated with 16-year-old U.S. ladies champion Laurence Owen, a passenger on the plane, beaming from the cover.
The Canadian skaters who landed in Prague the morning of the crash crumpled in horror and disbelief at the news -- some had planned to fly with their American friends.
In Rye, N.Y., 10-year-old Diana LeMaire woke at dawn to the unaccustomed sound of adults bustling around on the floor below. Confused, she came downstairs. Her mother sat her and her sister Dorinda down at the kitchen table and told them their handsome, gregarious father, skating judge Eddie LeMaire, and their energetic 13-year-old brother Dickie were dead.
"Some people never have a father or a brother,'' a composed Muriel LeMaire told her girls. "You at least had a father and a brother, even if it was for a short time.''
At Purdue University, Russell Pierce found out from a minister that his only brother, Larry, the national ice-dancing champion with partner Diane Sherbloom, had been killed.
"I was 18, and we were all invincible," Russell said. "It took months for me to realize this wasn't just another competition he hadn't come back from."
Newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy issued a statement expressing condolences. Czech organizers and other officials lobbied to go ahead with the world championship, but the International Skating Union overruled them and canceled the event.
Stunned friends and fellow athletes in the skating hotbeds of Boston, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Los Angeles attended multiple funerals in a week.
Identifying all the remains took more than a week, adding to the families' agony. After visiting the crash scene and the morgue, King Baudouin of Belgium donated oak caskets with the royal seal on one end to transport the bodies home.
Small shifts of fate had determined who went on the trip and who stayed home.
Future U.S. champion Lorraine Hanlon was among the junior skaters invited to accompany the team to Prague and skate in exhibitions afterward. She wanted to go, but the private school she attended threatened to expel her if she did. Coach Ron Ludington decided he couldn't afford the airfare to accompany his ice dancers Bob and Pat Dineen.
Four-time U.S. silver medalist Tim Brown became visibly ill during his free skate at the national championship in the thin air of Colorado Springs, his mouth hanging open in distress. He finished his program with split jumps that took him all the way out of the rink. The judges placed him third.
Brown was diagnosed with a heart ailment, and fourth-place finisher Doug Ramsay -- a pint-size dynamo from Detroit who defied physics by lingering in the air on his double axel and sometimes did the jump with his arms folded -- was invited to go to worlds in his place. Brown would later write to Ramsay's mother, apologizing for being alive.
Investigators from Belgium, the U.S. and an international oversight group combed evidence for months. The FBI probed possible terrorism. Rumors multiplied and spread. No cause was ever definitively established, although authorities eventually agreed the most plausible explanation was a mechanical failure.
U.S. figure skating executives issued a mandate that still stands: No team traveling to an international competition would ever fly together again.