Chicago man says last minute change kept him off doomed plane in ’79

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CHICAGO — In 1979, Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic had been swept from power after a harsh winter and a botched response to a blizzard. More than two dozen corpses were pulled from John Wayne Gacy’s home, the Iran hostage crisis gripped the country, so did economic turmoil and a sense of “malaise” as President Jimmy Carter put it. As Chicago approached the Memorial Day weekend, a fuel shortage had drivers lining up at gas stations.

A then 19-year-old Chicagoan James Gilliam was planning a trip to Los Angeles to see his cousin.

“I see on the news, the gas crisis and lines to get gas,” he said. “I talked to my cousin. (He said) ‘If you’re coming out here to hang out I don’t know how it’s going to work.’”

Because of the national gas shortage, just two days before he was set to go, Gilliam changed his flight.

His original ticket was on American Airlines Flight 191, the doomed aircraft set to depart O’Hare on May 25 1979 at 3:04 p.m.

As the plane took off, the primary engine fell off. It was in the air for just 31 seconds before it crashed to the ground, killing all 271 people on board and two people on the ground.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, that was my flight,’” Gilliam said.

Gilliam is now 60-years-old and a successful banker in Chicago. The course of his life forever changed because of a gas shortage. The lack of fuel kept him going.

“I’ve never forgotten about that day,” he said.


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