by Britt Aamodt
Diane Doughty Madsen’s father had just put the younger two kids to bed: Madsen’s sister Janet, 10, and brother Tommy, 8.
Briefly, Madsen bopped upstairs to change into pajamas and then raced back down to catch the Minneapolis Lakers game with Mom and Dad.
It was an ordinary Tuesday night, until the fireball hit the house at 9:02 p.m.
Madsen and her parents vaulted from the sunroom windows.
“I went straight through the glass,” Madsen remembers. “You don’t think. You just react.”
It took a few moments to collect themselves and figure out what had happened. Even then it seemed impossible.
A Northwest Airlines Martin 202 had crashed into their home on the 1000 block of Minnehaha Parkway in Minneapolis.
Freezing rain had prevented the plane from landing in Rochester, so it rerouted to Minneapolis. It was snowing over the city, and the pilot decided to turn off his navigation instruments to attempt a visual landing.
That’s when he clipped a wing on the flagpole at Fort Snelling. The wing fell off, and the plane spun after it.
When the smoke cleared and the authorities tallied the damage, 15 lives had been lost: 10 passengers, three crew members and Madsen’s sister and brother.
This March marks the 62nd anniversary of the plane crash, which occurred March 7, 1950, and changed not just Madsen’s life but hundreds of lives forever.
For over two decades, Madsen and her husband, whom she calls Buster, have made their home in Elk River. Their three children, Kent, Kathy and Keith, went to Elk River schools, and Madsen herself worked for the school district.
In the years before retirement, she was a school librarian. One of the many things the students who checked in and returned materials never knew about the librarian was that she had survived the worst plane crash in Minneapolis history.
“We got away with the clothes on our backs. That was it,” says Madsen.
The house was destroyed. The family relocated a few blocks away, not far from where Madsen attended Washburn High as a sophomore. And life went on.
For over half a century, Madsen didn’t talk about her story. Of course her family knew and her close friends.
“It’s not something you talk about. What are you going to say? Guess what happened to me?” she says.
But then one day early last year, Madsen received a phone call from Mark Kaplan, a former Minneapolis City Council member. He wanted to know if it would be all right if he raised funds to erect a memorial for the flight.
Kaplan had been familiar with the story of the crash. After a memorial was put up for the victims of the I-35 bridge collapse, he thought the plane crash should have one too. The memorial was unveiled August 2011.
Madsen attended the ceremony with her husband, and gave a short speech to an assembled crowd of 300.
Kaplan had also arranged for Madsen and the pilot’s widow, Grace Jones, to meet for lunch.
“She was so worried about meeting me,” Madsen recalls. “I told her not in a million years did I blame her.”
Jones shared with Madsen that her husband, Capt. Donald Jones, hadn’t planned on flying that night. Their family was about to leave on vacation. The bags were packed and sitting by the door when the call came to fill in.
Among those at the ceremony were family members of crash victims, neighbors and Madsen’s high school friends. Madsen mingled and talked with the others. She learned that the stewardess, Mary Alice Kennedy of St. Paul, had been excited for her wedding, only a month away.
This past March 7, Madsen, Kaplan and guests gathered at the memorial installed across the street from Madsen’s old house. At 9:02 p.m. they lit candles, one for every victim.
About the memorial, Madsen says, “I’ve talked more about the crash lately than I have for 62 years. It’s given me closure.”