ROSELAWN — Whenever a great calamity strikes, it leaves scars in its wake. Such was the case 25 years ago when American Eagle Flight 4184 tragically crashed into a soybean field, killing all 68 people aboard. The small community of Roselawn had never before experienced such a horrific loss of life, was not prepared for such an event. Scars that might have vanished quickly in a world of callous big cities have instead lingered in the hearts and minds of Roselawn, and indeed, all of Newton County.
Scars are ugly because of the memories that they hold. On the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1994, a small, twin-engine commuter plane departed from Indianapolis, carrying 64 passengers along with four crew members. In the Midwest, autumn can often be as bitter and unforgiving as winter itself, and 1994 proved no different.
Halloween that year was heralded by freezing rain and stormy skies — Chicago would record 2.26 inches of rain all day — rain that would turn to suffocating snow just a few miles north later that night. The harsh winds and freezing rain proved a dangerous combination, and so just after 4 p.m., Flight 4184 was instructed to maintain a holding pattern due to the sheer volume of planes trying to land at O’Hare Airport. They would have to remain airborne until air traffic control could allow for them to land.
Unbeknownst to air traffic control, severe levels of ice had built up on the wings of the ill-fated plane.
“Ten more minutes, she said,” one of the pilots commented, according to the aircraft’s black box recording. Ten more minutes and they would be able to land, 10 more minutes and the flight would be able to land, just a bit behind schedule, and Halloween could go on as planned for those 68 souls aboard Flight 4184.
The ice on the wings made it impossible to last those 10 minutes. The plane could not be controlled, and on the recording, an altitude alert blared, and the over speed warning sounded off. It is difficult to imagine a more stressful, frightening situation than being one of those two men, being screamed at by various sirens and alerts, blinded by flashing red lights as the plane hurtled out of control. And yet those brave souls kept their composure until the very end, kept trying to bring the plane back under control even when hope had abandoned them and all that remained was the terrifying, all-consuming ground below.
“Okay, mellow it out,” said the other pilot, “mellow it out,” he encouraged, as though the plane were just passing through some light turbulence, when in reality, the sky was falling and he had every right to be terrified. The bravery it takes to reject fear cannot be overstated. “Nice and easy,” he reassured.
Four seconds later, the plane crashed into a wet, mud-strewn soybean field just outside of Roselawn, partially inverted, nose down. Despite the best efforts of the pilots, and the courage and resolve they displayed, the calamity could not be avoided. Sixty-eight lives were cruelly taken and countless others were irrevocably changed by something as trivial and unfair as ice on the wing of a plane.
Soon after the crash, the volunteer fire department of Lincoln Township was dispatched. Ralph Knapp vividly recalls getting in a fire truck and not wanting to believe that it was a commercial airliner that had been reported, that such a travesty could have occurred so close to home. But the truth became clear almost immediately as he entered that field of horrors.
“There was nothing left,” Knapp says. “As a firefighter, you’re trained to put out fires and look for survivors. Well, there were no fires, and no survivors.” Only the plane’s tail section was clearly identifiable, an ominous marker jutting out of the ground, denoting an impromptu mass grave. The plane had been torn to pieces, and so too, had been its passengers.
Knapp returned to the station wet and cold and hungry, and there was a feeling of desolation among the firefighters. Just like the pilots, they found themselves in a situation where there was nothing they could do besides stare the tragedy in the face and bear the scars it held. A rescue operation could not be conducted without somebody, anybody left to rescue.
Knapp received a call the next day, and FBI agents wanted to question him, as one of the first on the scene. Roselawn attained a national profile that day, for all of the wrong reasons.
Often, scars are painful not only because of the events they mark, but also because of the aftermath. The firefighters found themselves picking up body parts for the next several days, not just by themselves, but alongside members of many neighboring fire stations, all volunteers. This was a grueling facsimile of a rescue operation, and yet the firefighters bravely persisted, persisted because they had to give the families some consolation, because out of this horror, some order had to be created.
A filled coffin, in a grotesque sort of way, provides more solace than an empty one. It is easier to mourn at an inhabited grave than one whose occupant is forever lost. And so the firefighters endured.
Scars are a painful reminder of mistakes made, and a promise to do better in the future. Roselawn was not equipped to handle a disaster of this magnitude, and so inevitably, mistakes were made in the recovery process. According to the Indianapolis Star, the FBI sent in a special team to identify the body parts found at the scene. This goal was commendable, but likely impossible to achieve.
The remains of the victims of Flight 4184 spanned an area of greater than two city blocks in an anonymous, muddy soybean field. Even months after the recovery teams pulled up stakes, the bereaved still found human remains and personal effects.
The body parts that could not be identified were interred overnight, two-and-a-half weeks later, in a Merrillville cemetery. Not a family member was informed or asked about this until after the caskets, 17 of them, were firmly beneath the earth. In fact, the families were initially informed that no remains or personal belongings had been recovered from the wreckage.
Only after the clandestine burial had been discovered were 68 caskets sent to the families of the victims, containing small portions of the remains that were retrieved from the scene. Outrage grew further still when at least one victim’s family reported that the remains they received were not even the right ones.
The airlines were largely unresponsive as well, and so friends and families of the victims met with one another, sharing stories that were shockingly similar: they had been misinformed, misled, and mistreated. They developed an action plan, wrote their congressmen, senators, and any elected official that would listen.
Along with the families of other air disaster victims, they formed the National Air Disaster Alliance, an advocacy group which eventually secured the passage of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 (ADFAA), which in short, ensured that these mistakes would not and could not ever be made again, that government officials and airlines could not serve up bald-faced lies to the families of plane crash victims. The scars are ugly, but they are important and they teach a valuable lesson.
The FAA also learned from the scars and revised regulations that certified planes to fly in conditions of freezing rain and severe icing. The dangers were perhaps not known (or their severity was not known, at the very least), but after the tragedy of Flight 4184, a painful lesson was learned that could never again be repeated.
The scars are also, in some way, a badge of honor, because where officials failed, the community of Roselawn stepped up. Led by Helen Mudd, and her children, Julie Gunther, and Chuck Mudd, a group of townsfolk arranged a memorial, 68 crosses bearing the names of the victims, a somber place to reflect on the unthinkable tragedy that ripped those 68 lives from the world. Care of the memorial eventually shifted to Tom Pope, Mike Guerrero, and Guerrero’s two sons.
Later a wall with all victims names' was erected and the roadside monument rests along 400 East, only about a mile to the east of Route 55, near the intersection of 700 North.
Likewise, a monument erected by the firefighters themselves sits before the Lincoln Township Fire Department, honoring those lost in the horrible plane crash. And of course, there is the memorial at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville where the caskets of unknown remains were secretly interred. Perhaps in atonement for this operation, a monument was dedicated less than a year after the burials in remembrance of the crash victims.
The scars are ugly for the memories that they hold, but are beautiful for the horrible losses they prevented. The scars are beautiful because they show that in the wake of these horrible calamities, the natural goodness of people shines out. The brave pilots who fought to save the plane until the bitter end. The firefighters who trudged through the muck and mire to bring the families some semblance of closure. The townspeople who erected these memorials so that those who are gone will never be forgotten. The families who came together to push reforms to ensure no one else would have to experience these tragedies.
The memorials are spread far and wide, but the victims of 4184 live on the hearts of Hoosiers everywhere. They live on in the faces of those who survive them and the positive change those family members put into place. Their legacy is every plane that lands safely because of these new regulations and every passenger who comes home from those flights. Twenty-five years on, those scars are just as fresh as the day they were carved. But as long as those scars remain, the people of Roselawn will never forget.