Belgians Pay Tribute to Victims of Sabena Airlines Flight 548 on 50th Anniversary of Crash

by Leslie Gianelli

Leslie Gianelli stands at the monument to the crash near Lemmekens Berg. (Photo by Guy Visele)
Feb. 15, 1961, was a dark day in the history of figure skating. The crash of Sabena Airlines Flight 548 not only left an indelible scar on the U.S. skating community but also on the Belgian survivors and residents of the area where the plane went down during its approach to the Brussels airport. Just as we Americans remember and pay tribute to the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating World Team, Belgians, too, will never forget those lost on that fateful day.

As chair of the Memorial Fund, I attended a commemoration on behalf of U.S. Figure Skating in Kampenhout, Belgium, on Feb. 12, 2011, honoring the 73 people killed in the crash. A series of events marked the occasion, attended by approximately 200 people, including local officials, families of the Sabena 548 flight crew, former Sabena employees, the families of the farmers killed and injured on the ground, and townspeople who remember the day and wanted to share their memories and respects.

The day began with a luncheon hosted by Kampenhout Mayor Jean Meeus, followed by a presentation on the technical aviation aspects of the crash by Kevin Cleynhens, whose book Sabena 548, de laatste vlucht van Juliet Bravo was published to correspond with the 50th anniversary of the tragic event.

After the presentation by Cleynhens, audience members were transported by bus to the monument near the crash site in Lemmekens Berg for a memorial service. The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, spoke at the service, as did Mayor Meeus and I. A reception followed in the Kampenhout town center.

Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, places flowers at the monument near Lemmekens Berg. (Photo by Guy Visele)
Cleynhens and his colleagues at Belgium's Hangar Flying group organized an exhibition on Sabena 548, which was on display in the Villa Lucie in the center of Kampenhout. Ambassador Gutman and many event participants toured the exhibition throughout the day, and school groups were scheduled for subsequent tours to educate them about general aviation and the tragedy that befell their town. Among the exhibits are flight logs kept by the Sabena crew, original newspaper clippings about the crash and those killed, and a tribute to the 1961 World Team.

Belgium and the United States will forever be linked by the events of Feb. 15, 1961. The healing still continues for families and friends on both sides of the Atlantic, and memorials, such as the one in Kampenhout on Feb. 12, will help keep alive the memory and legacy of those we lost for future generations.

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