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Boxing team among casualties in Polish Air crash

A Polish Airlines flight, on a Soviet-built Ilyushin 62 jet, crashes while attempting to land in Warsaw, killing all 87 people on board, including 22 members of the United States boxing team, on this day in 1980.

The flight originated in New York and carried 77 passengers and 10 crew members, in addition to the young boxers. On its approach to the airport there were problems with the landing gear. The pilots attempted a second approach using a special procedure to account for the faulty landing gear. However, the additional thrust used in the procedure caused one of the plane’s engines to break apart, which in turn severed the rudder and elevator control lines, which were needed to control the direction and altitude of the plane. A half-mile from the airport, the plane crashed into an army base that had been a 19th-century fortress. Much of the fuselage landed in a water-filled moat around the base. Due to the location of the crash site, which was difficult to reach, the bodies remained there for more than a day.

Among the victims were the 14 American amateur boxers, most in their teens and taking their first trip out of the United States, who were traveling with six coaches and an aide to attend televised matches in Katowice, Poland. The boxers were preparing for the upcoming Olympic trials (later the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan). The team was led by Coach Tom Sarge Johnson, who had helped the 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing team earn five gold medals and seven medals overall.

Lemuel Steeples was the best boxer aboard the plane. He had recently won the Pan American Games championship in his weight class and was the amateur national champion; he would have been the favorite for the Olympic gold medal. Also aboard the plane were a prominent anthropologist, Dr. Alan Merriam, and the Polish singer Anna Jantar. A future light-heavyweight champion of the world, Bobby Czyz, was fortunate not to be on the flight. The Polish American boxer was a member of the U.S. boxing team and had been scheduled to make the trip, but had cancelled when he was injured in a car accident just days before team’s departure.

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