Almost 50 years ago, as a Delta aircraft approached Logan International Airport in a thick blanket of fog, Michelle Brennen, 10, played outside under the Vermont summer sun. When she eventually returned home, her mother and siblings were in tears.
A state away, in New Hampshire, 8-year-old Jim Fuller wandered off with a friend at his family’s farm, only to come back to a driveway filled with unfamiliar vehicles whose drivers had rushed there after hearing the unbearable news.
In Florida, Molly O’Toole prepared for her sons, escorted by her mother, to return from a trip to Vermont. She was pleasantly surprised to hear her nephew would be joining them. But they would never arrive.
It was the morning of July 31, 1973, and all of their lives were about to change.
Just after 11 a.m., Delta Airlines Flight 723 undershot the runway in Boston amid low visibility and collided with a sea wall. The plane, which had left Burlington and stopped briefly in Manchester, N.H., “just totally disintegrated” on impact, according to the Globe archives, scattering personal belongings and debris across the runway and instantly killing nearly everyone inside. The horrific crash would eventually claim the lives of all 89 people on board.
While a half century has passed since the crash — the worst in New England’s history and a catalyst for improvements in airport safety — family members of the victims say their grief has never waned.
On Sunday, more than 200 people linked to those who were killed will gather for a memorial service at the Logan Airport chapel. It’s an opportunity, they said, to meet one another — many for the first time — and commemorate a disaster that, although it dramatically upended so many lives, has mostly slipped from the region’s collective memory.
“After 50 years, people have forgotten that this flight happened and that there were people on it that meant something to others,” said Brennen, now 60, whose father was killed in the crash. “I’ve always felt I needed to connect with people who had experienced the same thing.”
For the past two years, Brennen has been tracking down friends and family of the deceased, and set up a private Facebook page, called Echoes of Delta Flight 723, that now has more than 260 members. She also organized Sunday’s morning service at Logan, where a granite plaque honoring victims will be christened.
Brennen remembers her father, a former Air Force tail gunner, as a talented engineer and a “huge outdoorsman.” He also loved model planes — so much so that, when she first heard his plane had crashed, she didn’t understand why everyone was upset.
“‘What’s the big deal?’” she remembers asking. “‘We’ll just glue it back together.’”
Although his death had been part of a widely covered public tragedy, she’s felt that the families of the victims have had to grieve separately, and largely on their own.
Military widows, she said, are more likely to find and support one another because resources and established groups exist.
“They don’t have that when an accident happens,” she said.
As an adult, she’s tried to fill that void by bringing together the many people affected by the crash.
She knows congregating to commemorate the anniversary won’t be easy for everyone. On the group’s Facebook page, people share photos and happy memories of their loved ones — but they also commiserate about the toll that tragic day has taken on them.
“It’s still really raw for some people,” Brennen said. “Some people don’t even want to remember. ... For some people, 50 years isn’t long enough.”
Pam Lazares knows the feeling. Typically, she said, she spends the anniversary of the disaster reflecting quietly by herself.
“For me, July 31 is a day that I sort of go off the grid,” she said. “I just don’t want to be communicating much with people that day.”
Lazares, of Milton, was 18 when her grandmother, Ora Shaka Kapopoulos, 63, boarded the plane after it made a brief stop in Manchester. Thirty-two people got on with her during the nonscheduled stop after the fog canceled their original flight to New York.
Lazares and her mother, then 42, adored the family matriarch, a Greek immigrant who sold jewelry and fine homewares, and had been flying out of Manchester to buy products for her store.
Lazares’s mother had urged Kapopoulos not to take the short flight. Thirteen others opted to stay behind, or travel to Boston by car that day. But she boarded anyway.
When they didn’t hear from her — and when TV broadcasts began reporting on a crash at Logan — Lazares said she and her mother called “every hotel in New York” hoping she’d already safely checked in.
Soon, the grim reality set in. The first responders who rushed to the site of the crash found the plane reduced to a charred heap. Just two passengers left the runway alive. One died hours later. The other lived until December, briefly hailed as the miraculous sole survivor of the tragedy.
Lazares’s father, a doctor, reported to the makeshift morgue that had been set up at Logan for family members to identify the dead. Her mother couldn’t bring herself to go.
She still gets choked up when she thinks about seeing her grandmother’s charred wallet and jewelry that were pulled from the wreckage, and the small imprints she left behind in her New Hampshire home.
The aftermath of the crash, in the pages of the Globe
A selection of front pages from The Boston Globe's coverage of the crash at Logan.
“Her famous meatballs were still in the refrigerator” after the crash, said Lazares, whose daughter, Katie, is an assistant legal counsel at the Globe. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the last time we’ll ever have those.’”
Lazares’s mother, who is now 92 and has dementia, rarely discussed what happened. But she never got over the devastating loss.
“She told me that after that funeral, she was never able to cry at a funeral ever again, because she cried so hard for so long,” Lazares said. “She never let those emotions come to the surface again.”
As the years passed, much of New England seemed to leave the story behind as well, said Paul Houle, who wrote a book about the crash.
“Things get pushed aside. Life goes on,” he said.
At the time, locals followed what happened closely. Houle, who grew up in Ashburnham, was 9 years old and has vivid memories of hearing updates on the wreck’s only survivor, Air Force Sergeant Leopold Chouinard, who lived for four months before succumbing to severe injuries.
“You couldn’t help but admire the fight he put up,” Houle said.
Still, the crash’s long-term impact never got the recognition it deserved, he said.
July 31, 1973
Delta Airlines Flight 723 from Vermont to Boston
July 31, 1973 • 9:12 a.m.
Delta Flight 723, bound for Boston, leaves Vermont before making an “unscheduled stop” in Manchester, N.H., to pick up other passengers.
Thirty-two people stranded in Manchester, after their flight to New York was canceled due to the fog, board the plane for the short flight to Boston. Thirteen others choose not to get on, and “live to tell it.”
The aircraft makes final contact with the control tower coming into Logan, according to Globe archives. The crash reportedly happens a minute later. Authorities determined the plane hit a seawall near the end of runway 4R.
Geoff Keating, a construction engineer who witnessed the crash from a distance, rushes to Massport Fire Department Chief Charles Arena’s office and reports what happened. Arena races to the scene and alerts the control tower, which was unaware of the accident, on the way.
Arena radios his station to strike the emergency Boston Crash Alarm, a “disaster signal that mobilizes hospitals and rescue apparatus throughout Boston proper,” according to the Globe.
Other first responders report to the grisly scene, where people are “scattered all over the ground” among the debris, according to Maureen Kennedy, a nurse from the Logan Airport Medical Center. Just Leopold Chouinard, 20, of Vermont, would survive the day, before succumbing to his injuries months later.
Logan Airport is finally reopened after closing down amid the massive response on the runway. During the closure, 15 Boston-bound flights are diverted to TF Green Airport in Providence.
In his book, Houle describes how investigators uncovered jaw-dropping safety lapses at the airport that day, including that air traffic controllers failed to notice the plane had crashed for several minutes, and had continued clearing other planes to land while wreckage was still strewn near the runway. (Thankfully other pilots, wary of the dense fog, didn’t attempt to do so.)
The tragedy, Houle said, led to new protocols that improved communication about weather conditions on runways and made airports much safer. But that aspect of the tale “wasn’t covered in the way it should have been.”
His book has been embraced by descendants of the victims, many of whom said they appreciate his keeping the memory of the crash alive. Houle plans to attend the memorial on Sunday.
“The beautiful thing about this memorial is that family members who thought they were grieving alone, they really weren’t,” he said. “Bringing them together for this memorial is going to have a huge, beneficial, soothing impact.”
Some of the victims’ relatives have tried to find meaning in the decades that have passed since the tragedy.
Marla “Molly” O’Toole, who lost her two children, mother, and nephew that day, eventually found work comforting grieving families at an Arizona mortuary and as a grief counselor’s assistant. She’s also spent much of her life writing letters to “people in tragic situations.”
“I’m just kind of cut out for that kind of thing,” said O’Toole, 83.
Long before the crash, she worked at her uncle’s funeral home while in middle school, arranging flowers and greeting mourners.
“I had a different experience about acceptance of death and everything, which in some ways has been a help,” she said. “But of course, no one ever expects to lose their children.”
Just as tragedy can bring families closer together, it can also pull them apart. The latter was true for O’Toole, who said she was estranged from much of her family in Vermont after the accident.
Connecting with Brennen, the memorial organizer, has helped. Although O’Toole, who won’t attend the ceremony due to her health, doesn’t use Facebook, the two have grown close over the phone and “have kind of bonded through this experience.”
For Fuller, who learned that morning that the line of cars in his driveway belonged to friends and relatives who were there to comfort him and his newly orphaned siblings, and figure out how they would care for them, the crash was devastating. It had the potential to steer him down a dark path, but instead he has leaned into gratitude.
“Earlier in my life, I was always focused on what I didn’t have,” he said. “But as time has gone on, I focus more on the time I had with them, and the fact that I know how much they loved us, and they were great parents.”
He’s also tried to live by their example. That morning, he said, they had been flying to New York to meet children they would take back to New Hampshire as part of the Fresh Air Fund, which connects disadvantaged kids with host families who open up their homes to them.
“That’s how they tried to live their lives,” he said. “They wanted to make the world a better place.”
In their memory, he’s organizing a memorial blood drive on Saturday at Reservoir Church in Cambridge.
Fuller said he recognizes that there will be people who can’t attend the airport ceremony for one reason or another, but it’s “not because they don’t care,” he said.
“It’s because they care so much.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where Pam Lazares lives. She is from Milton