Updated:
Original:
Year
1961
Month Day
February 15

U.S. figure skating team killed in plane crash

On this day in 1961, the entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team is killed in a plane crash in Berg-Kampenhout, Belgium. The team was on its way to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Among those killed in the crash was 16-year-old Laurence Owen, who had won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in the ladies’ division the previous month. She was featured on the February 13, 1961, cover of Sports Illustrated, which called her the “most exciting U.S. skater.” Bradley Long, the 1961 U.S. men’s champion, also perished in the crash, as did Maribel Owen (Laurence’s sister) and Dudley Richards, the 1961 U.S. pairs champions, and Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce, the 1961 U.S. ice dancing champions. Also killed was 49-year-old Maribel Vinson-Owen, a nine-time U.S. ladies’ champion and 1932 Olympic bronze medalist, who coached scores of skaters, including her daughters Maribel and Laurence. Vinson-Owen also coached Frank Carroll, who went on to coach the 2010 men’s Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek and nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan.

In addition to the skaters, 16 people accompanying them, including family, friends, coaches and officials, were killed. The other 38 passengers and crew aboard Sabena Flight 548, which left New York on the night of February 14, also died when the plane went down around 10 a.m. in clear weather while attempting to make a scheduled stopover landing at the Belgian National Airport in Brussels. One person on the ground, a farmer working in the field where the Boeing 707 crashed in Berg-Kampenhout, several miles from the airport, was killed by some shrapnel. Investigators were unable to determine the exact cause of the crash, although mechanical difficulties were suspected.

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.

Shortly after the 1961 crash, the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund was established; to date, it has provided financial assistance to thousands of elite American skaters. In 2011, the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, the 18 members of the 1961 figure skating team, along with the 16 people traveling with them to Prague, were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Canada adopts maple leaf flag

In accordance with a formal proclamation by Queen Elizabeth II of England, a new Canadian national flag is raised above Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Beginning in 1610, Lower Canada, a new British colony, flew Great Britain’s Union Jack, or Royal Union Flag. ...read more

First Teddy bear goes on sale

On this day in 1903, toy store owner and inventor Morris Michtom places two stuffed bears in his shop window, advertising them as Teddy bears. Michtom had earlier petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt for permission to use his nickname, Teddy. The president agreed and, before ...read more

FDR escapes assassination in Miami

On this day in 1933, a deranged, unemployed brick layer named Giuseppe Zangara shouts Too many people are starving! and fires a gun at America’s president-elect, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt had just delivered a speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park from the back seat of his open ...read more

The death penalty–then and now

Giuseppe Zangara shoots Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, in Miami, Florida. Zangara’s shots missed President-elect Franklin Roosevelt, who was with Cermak at the time. Cermak was seriously wounded and died on March 6. Immediately after Mayor Cermak died from the gunshot ...read more

USSR and PRC sign mutual defense treaty

The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the two largest communist nations in the world, announce the signing of a mutual defense and assistance treaty. The negotiations for the treaty were conducted in Moscow between PRC leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai, and ...read more

Singapore falls to Japan

Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East” and a strategic British stronghold, falls to Japanese forces. An island city and the capital of the Straits Settlement of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore had been a British colony since the 19th century. In July 1941, when Japanese troops ...read more