February 15, 1961—Berg-Kampenhout, Belgium
When death rears its hideous head and takes the young, there is such an outrage against the immortal foe. The potential of young lives untapped and forever lost has no consolation.
So it was on a February morning as a Boeing 707-129 nearing Brussels-Zaventem Airport that tragedy would strike without warning. Sabena Flight 548 under the command of Captain Ludovic Marie Antoine Lambrechts and Captain Jean Roy was coming from Idlewild Airport, New York.
11 crew members and 61 passengers were on board. For reasons theorized without concrete explanations to this day, something happened to the 707 which proved fatal to the crew and passengers.
34 members of the US Figure Skating Association were on board (16 athletes and 18 coaches, family members and judges). They were on their joyful way to World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
All perished in the crash. On the ground a farmer Theo de Laet was killed by debris.
Marcel Lauwers, another farm laborer, was struck by debris but survived thanks to Bertha Goovaerts, aunt of Theo, who was in the field. Her fast action saved his life, but she was unable to save her nephew.
The only survivor was a German shepherd in the cargo area. It was badly injured and succumbed to its injuries which made the crash a total loss of life.
In the wreckage three pairs of skates were found as well as a copy of the Sports Illustrated February 13, 1961. On the burned cover was 16 year-old Laurence Rochon “Laurie” Owen who perished with her sister and mother.
The high school student planned to attend Radcliffe College. She wanted to be a writer.
So many dreams and hopes were lost that February day. The tragic loss still touches people, especially family members and friends.
In closing, the beautiful poem The Awakening by Laurence Rochon “Laurie” Owen sums up the spirit of the team which perished on that February morning.
Softly, softly the spring comes o’er the tired land
All men awake refreshed;
They rise to greet the world with joy
And birds sing, and all becomes new-born.
Gloom is but a shadow of the night long past;
Hope is the light,
G. D. Williams © 2018
Listed below are references which provide greater details about the plane and people.
Sabena Flight 548
List of all Passengers on Sabena Flight 548
Figure skaters’ 1961 plane crash haunts skating community
To this day, no one knows why the plane crashed. It left New York at 8:30 p.m. Passengers were reading Sports Illustrated, which featured U.S. women’s champion Laurence Owen on the cover. As the 707 approached its scheduled stop in Brussels at 9 a.m., the skies were cloudless.
On first approach, Belgian pilot Louis Lambrechts overshot the runway and climbed to 1,500 feet, supposedly to avoid a jet ready to take off. Observers later said they saw streaks of smoke coming out of the engines.
Lambrechts, with whom the air traffic controllers had lost contact, tried landing on another runway. But he came in too low, increased the speed and then turned sharply to the left. The plane never came out of the turn, crashing in a small farm field with its landing gear down at a 78-degree angle.
Light and Radiance: Figure Skater Laurence Owen and Her Team by Kathy Warnes
In a building near the airport, a farm woman, 41 Bertha Goovaerts had been cutting endives—salad herbs—when she heard the explosion. She turned and saw that her nephew Theo de Laet, a farmer and a noted amateur cyclist, had been killed by a flying piece of aluminum. Another field worker, Marcel Lauwers, had been hit by shrapnel and lost part of his leg. He rolled on the ground like a flaming log. Bertha raced to him and stripped off his clothes to save his life.
Perhaps the most poignant memorial is the February 13, 1961, Sports Illustrated cover with Laurence Owen skating across it. A tattered and charred copy of the cover survived the crash and Laurence has skated across the years, inspiring others who want to skate lighter than air.
U.S. figure skating team killed in plane crash
The tragedy devastated the U.S. figure skating program and meant the loss of the country’s top skating talent. Prior to the crash, the U.S. had won the men’s gold medal at every Olympics since 1948 (when Dick Button became the first American man to do so), while U.S. women had claimed Olympic gold in 1956 and 1960. After the crash, an American woman (Peggy Fleming) would not capture Olympic gold until 1968, while a U.S. man (Scott Hamilton) would not do so until 1984.
The incident was the worst air disaster involving a U.S. sports team until November 1970, when 37 players on the Marshall University football team were killed in a plane crash in West Virginia.
Remembering the plane crash that rocked U.S. figure skating by Filip Bondy
The plane exploded. There were no survivors, other than a dog in the cargo hold. Sixteen members of the U.S. team perished. They were on their way to the world championships in Prague. So, too, had 16 American skating coaches, officials and family members. These Americans were royalty in the sport. The future kings and queens of skating lay broken into bits in a field near Berg, Belgium.
Lost in the wreckage was Maribel Vinson-Owen, the nine-time U.S. champion and by then the coach of her two incredibly talented daughters, who were also dead: Laurence Owen, just 16, the graceful American champion and a favorite at the Prague championships who had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated just two days earlier, and Maribel Y. Owen, 20, a pairs champion. The victims included Bradley Lord, 21, the U.S. men’s champion, and a young, promising upstart named Greg Kelley, 16, from Newton Center, Mass.
The Owen Family: Tragic Figures of US Olympic Figure Skating by Alison Moran
Because we forget what’s good about US Olympic figure skating before scandals. Before showstopping production numbers trumped compulsory figures. When figure skating was all about the love of the ice, the ballet of movement and athleticism, and the families who sacrificed to be a part of it. Some, like the Owen family…gave all.
“There was double tragedy in the face of the figure skaters who died Wednesday [February 15, 1961] in the crash of their jet airliner — a kind of tragedy only the very young can know.
Their past was short indeed. They had given it willingly, to long hours and days and years of practice. They had forfeited much of childhood’s normal playtime.
And now there is no future . . . .
For each, the story was the same.
The past that seemed so short was longer than they knew.
It was all they would ever have.”
— The Burbank Daily Review, February 16, 1961