I knew there was something so tragically compelling about the story of Sabena Flight 548, which plummeted to earth while trying to land in Brussels, Belgium on February 15, 1961, carrying with it the entire United States Figure Skating Team headed for the World Championships, that somehow I felt compelled, in turn, to write about it.
The event was haunting enough at the time it happened; although I was not yet nine years old, I can clearly remember the headlines in my hometown paper, the Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review. Forty years afterward, a spate of anniversary articles caught my attention – and, unexpectedly, my imagination. The story, which had just been covered particularly well in a moving Boston Globe series, seemed too big, with too many characters – and after all, these were real people who had perished in a real disaster. I would never want to write anything that was less than an appropriate tribute. So I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around how to write about it.
But, there was one indication that this story would be staying with me. In March 2001, I traveled to Belgium to do some background research as I continued to work on Flower of Iowa, visiting Great War cemeteries. In the storied town of Ypres, I stood with a crowd of tourists, mostly British schoolchildren, under a huge arch where, at 8 pm, the entire group grew silent as a local bugler played “The Last Post,” the British equivalent of “Taps” (they’ve been doing that every evening for more than 90 years, and still are in the midst of the COVID pandemic, though now there are no crowds).
My flight back out of the Brussels Airport was in mid-morning, and after asking someone for directions, I made one last stop before dropping off the rental car. With a little luck, I found a small monument in what is now a suburban neighborhood in the hamlet of Berg-Kampenhout, but what in 1961 was a chicory field. With a few words inscribed on it in Flemish, it seemed a modest marker indeed to memorialize the spot where 73 souls had lost their lives. It was almost nondescript – and yet I already knew from my work on Flower of Iowa that visiting a spot where something has actually taken place, however mundane it might look now, could ignite something in my imagination.