BRUSSELS, Belgium -- All 18 members of the United States figure skating team flying to Prague for an international meet were killed today when a Belgian jet airliner crashed out of a bright blue sky near Brussels airport. The crash killed 73 persons, including 52 Americans.
Among the dead was America's "queen of the ice," Laurence Owen, 16, who won the North American figure skating championship only four days ago.
Relatives and friends of the victims watched in horror from the Zaventem Airport terminal as the Boeing 707 faltered and fell into an endive field nearby. It exploded and burst into flames so intense there was no hope of rescue.
This was the first major air disaster of 1961, the first crash of a Boeing 707 jet in commercial service, and a great tragedy to American athletics. A number of American families perished with the skaters.
In addition to the 18 members of the skating team were 14 other Americans in the party of the skaters, including five professional coaches. An official of the American Skating Union said it would be three years before the U.S. again could develop championship competitors in the sport.
Also among the Americans killed were three airline stewardesses from Texas on their way to Europe for a vacation.
The cause of the accident only a mile from the end of an airport runaway after a non-stop flight from New York was a mystery.
The sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly when the Sabina plane dived to the ground while circling for a landing. Airport officials said they lost radio contact with the pilot as the plane approached the field.
The plane nosed into an endive field only yards from a cluster of red brick homes. Sabena Airlines officials said there were "no survivors" among the 61 passengers and 11 crewmen. One man working in the field was killed and another was seriously injured.
The victims included 52 Americans among the passengers on the flight from New York to Brussels.
The 16-year-old Miss Owen, of Winchester, Mass., captured the women's North American figure skating crown in Philadelphia last weekend. She and the other skaters were members of the U.S. team en route to Prague for the international skating championships which were canceled because of the crash.
Mother, sister killed
Also killed in the crash was Miss Owens' equally famous mother, Mrs. Maribel Vinson Owen, a nine-times figure skating champion herself, and Laurence's 20-year-old sister, also named Maribel who is a skating star in her own right.
The disaster wiped out U.S. hopes for skating victories in the 1964 Olympics. U.S. senior men's champion Gregory Kelley of Colorado Springs, Colo., also was killed.
Eyewitnesses said the giant silver and blue plane -- flight 548 which left New York at 8:30 EST last night -- circled the airfield three times, apparently trying to land.
It finally started its descent, swung up briefly, started down again and then banked steeply and plunged into the ground nose first from 300 feet at 10:05 a.m. (4:05 a.m. EST). It sliced through power lines on its death dive.
Explodes into flames
Witnesses said the plane exploded immediately into flames and spewed forth heavy black smoke.
Eleven fire companies responded to dozens of calls from frightened residents in villages at the edge of the airfield but there was no help for the victims.
Thirty bodies had been pulled from the wreckage by noon and rescues sent for army cranes to lift the heavier pieces of debris.
At Davos, Switzerland the International Skating Union began polling members of the federation to determine whether the championship meet scheduled for Feb. 22-26 should be canceled. George Haesler, secretary of the skating union, at first said the meet was being canceled but later, after consultation with other members, it was decided to conduct the poll.
The casualty toll was the eighth highest among the world's airliner disasters.
The cause was a mystery. Flying weather was perfect. The plane apparently had reported no difficulty during its 7 1/2 hour non-stop flight across the Atlantic from New York.
The scene of the crash was the village of Berg 11 miles northeast of Brussels.
Mrs. Heloise Vereycken, a nearby resident, said she heard the plane make "several turns over our settlement."
"I saw the plane coming and I believe the pilot did not want to crash on the houses but was desperately looking for a clear spot," she said.
Before hitting the ground the plane banked steeply and then blasted into the field."
Eleven fire companies responded to the disaster but the plane was an inferno and it was impossible to get anyone out alive.
The crash occurred at 10:05 a.m. (4:05 a.m. EST).
Shortly before noon 30 bodies had been removed from the wreck, some so badly battered that it appeared identification would be difficult.
Veteran RAF pilot
Sabena officials identified the pilot as Capt. Louis Lambrechts, a veteran of Britain's Royal Air Force and one of Sabena's most experienced Boeing fliers. Sabena has four other Boeings.
Airport sources said they had tried vainly to contact the plane by radio as it was preparing for a landing but could not get an answer.
There was some speculation today's total eclipse of the sun may have been to blame but Sabena officials said they doubted it because the eclipse was over an hour before the crash.
The plane hit the ground short of the start of the air field's long runway.
Gendarmes cordoned off the area while official investigators poked into the wreckage alongside the rescuers.
A sudden silence
Minister of Public Works Omer van Audennove arrived shortly after noon to help.
Mrs. Mariette Peeters said she was in the kitchen of her home near the crash scene when she heard the airliner coming in "muffled."
"Then there was a sudden silence followed by the noise of a crash," she said.
She called police and firemen while smoke belched from the wreckage.
The man killed in the field was identified as Theo de Later, 21, a former well-known racing cyclist. he was released from military service two months ago.
The man working in the field with De Later was reported to have lost a leg. The plane crashed close to a densely populated area.