Dental News

  • June 17, 2019

Remembering a tragedy from 40 years ago

Reading the names of some of those who died at a 40th anniversary commemorating the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 last weekend, retired Park Ridge pediatric dentist Dr .John Kenney once again was transported to the chaos and coincidences and somber camaraderie of those hectic, gruesome days.

Dr. Kenny flew in from Nashville for the remembrance, held at a memorial wall and garden in Des Plaines, to remember the victims after the crash, which took 273 lives on May 25, 1979. 

Drs. Kenney, who along with a hand-picked group of some 20 others, spent nearly eight weeks methodically reviewing records and identifying the victims in a sobering task that created a “tight-knit group,” Dr. Kenney said. He described the work as “like being in a war zone.” The psychological effects of the undertaking left lasting marks on the forensic team, who became a brotherhood of sorts that bonds them to this day. 

When Dr. Kenney learned of the 40th anniversary commemoration, he was then “knocked off my feet” when he was asked to read victims’ names. “I was more than honored to do that,” he said, noting that Saturday’s service provided some “closure” for himself and others on that difficult chapter. So much more is known today about how victims and first-responders are affected by disaster response, with the early seeds of understanding planted in that 1979 crash. “This is why we have stress debriefing now,” Dr. Kenny said. 

In an eerie coincidence, then 22-year-old John Kenney, with a marketing degree under his belt, went to work for American Airlines in 1968, working on safety manuals and emergency drills. He left in 1972 to go to Loyola University’s dental school, where he became intrigued with forensic dentistry during his sophomore year. He was chosen to attend a newly offered forensic class at Walter Reed Army Hospital his junior and senior years. He returned from the second class on May 24. On May 25, he had just walked out of the clinic at Loyola when the plane crashed, and he could see smoke snaking skyward. By 5:45 p.m., he was on the scene and didn’t leave for 96 hours.

As he walked the site just hours after the crash, Dr. Kenney saw debris that looked intact and “innocent” against the violent devastation at the scene. Another image with him still was the sight of Batesville Casket Company delivering hundreds of caskets to the hangar that was the command center for the identification work. The “rows and rows” of caskets brought home the “enormity” of the loss.

So much about how emergency response is organized to disasters – be it a plane crash or natural disaster – had its beginnings in the American Airline 191 aftermath, Kenney explained. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a cohesive plan for materials and manpower based on the lessons of that day. 

Dr. Kenney, who has worked as a consultant on numerous forensic identification cases since 1979, retired from his Park Ridge practice two years ago and now supervises dental residents at the New York University Langone Dental Medicine clinic just outside of Nashville.

A formidable group of Chicago area dentists and current or former Chicago Dental Society members were assembled for the forensic team, including Edward Pavlik, then chief of forensic sciences for the Cook County sheriff’s office, John Frasco, Stephen Raibley, Robin Blakkolb, Jerome Kadleck, Ralph Remus, Larry Pierce, Stephen Smith, Patrick Angelo and the late Lee Schwartz and Don Ore. Dr. Lowell Levine, who developed the forensics class at Walter Reed and whose leadership Dr. Kenney described as invaluable during the 1979 identification process, is a member of the New York County Dental Society.