William Kipp and Us Figure Skating Team Killed In Plane Crash 1961, GREENSBORO, N.C. – Peggy Fleming remembers hearing the news from her mom, while she was preparing for another school day in northern California. She was 12 years old at the time, a precocious rink rat, and then suddenly her little community of American figure skaters was wrenched and twisted inalterably. “My mom heard it on the radio and told me,” Fleming says. “It was like watching a bad movie. It wasn’t real. It took your breath away and took a lot of time to sink in. This sport draws out the deepest part of your soul.”
There had been a plane crash on Feb. 15, 1961, a terrible one. Sabena Flight 548, a Boeing 707 that had taken off from what was then called Idlewild, cracked hard into the ground after circling a Brussels airport three or four times before a planned landing.
Investigators later hypothesized it was the jet’s stabilizers that probably failed, though nobody could be sure.
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.
“I was in our boys’ room on the top floor of our Victorian home and I heard an ungodly scream from my mother on the second floor,” says Stephen Kelley, Greg’s older brother, who also lost an older sister, Nathalie, in the crash.
“You can’t adjust to that,” Kelley says. “My parents never really recovered. We had to fight like heck to get some information, and then after about two weeks, two bare, squared-off, European-style coffins arrived from Belgium.”