A Vermonter Seeks Family Members of Those Killed in 1973 Plane Crash | Off Message

A Vermonter Seeks Family Members of Those Killed in 1973 Plane Crash


Michelle Brennen holds a family photo at her home in Westford. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Michelle Brennen holds a family photo at her home in Westford.
On July 31, 1973, a commercial jet that took off from Burlington crashed while trying to land in heavy fog at Boston's Logan International Airport. All 88 people aboard died, though one man from Marshfield survived 100 days before succumbing to his burns.

Michelle Brennen was 10 at the time. Her father, an architect traveling for business, was aboard the plane, Delta Flight 723. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Westford woman is trying to find other family members of those who died in the crash in hopes of creating a memorial at the Boston airport and commemorating the loss in July 2023.

“Even though I have never met any of these people, I still feel a deep connection to them,” she said. “We all experienced the same tragedy.”

Brennen’s father, a Barre native named Michael Longchamp, was an Air Force veteran who was a turret gunner in the Korean War. Brennen remembers watching him assemble model planes at the family home in Essex. When he died at age 39, he left six kids behind; Brennen was the oldest.

Brennen and her family rallied after the crash, drawing on their Catholic faith and getting help from her father’s mother. But the event profoundly altered the course of their lives.

For Brennen, the ceremony and memorial are a way to honor her father, and also her whole family. Her mother and grandmother were able to keep the six kids on track after the tragedy. Her mother, who never remarried, wrote in a journal every day after the crash, Brennen said, and she saved all of the newspaper clippings she found about the event.
Michelle Brennen's father, Michael Longchamp - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Michelle Brennen's father, Michael Longchamp

Brennen’s mother died in January 2021, and when Brennen started to go through her papers last year, she found letters from her father’s brother, who had traveled to Boston to identify his body; sympathy cards; and correspondence with lawyers about the settlement Delta paid to survivors.

“I can remember going to a lot of Masses, because my family is very strongly Catholic,” she said. “I can remember food, food, food. My mother had to buy a freezer to store all the food that people brought.”

Seeing the papers her mother saved inspired Brennen to create the memorial, a plaque that Delta will pay for and install at Logan Airport. A Facebook group she started last summer, “Echoes of Delta Flight 723 — July 31, 1973,” now has 37 members, and she’s corresponding with a few people from around the country about the crash and their connections to it.

She’s also working with Father Christopher O’Connor, a pastor for a faith community lodged at the international tower at Logan called Our Lady of the Airways. The two have discussed holding a Mass on July 30, 2023.

“He will read all the names of the people on the flight, followed by a gathering afterward,” she said. “There seem to be other people who feel like I do."

Back in 1973, Delta had recently merged with Northeast Airlines, the main carrier out of Burlington. Jet travel was relatively new, said pilot Hobie Tomlinson, 78, who flew international flights for TWA for many years.

Tomlinson, who earned flight lessons at Burlington International Airport as a teenager by polishing planes, remembers hearing that the Delta DC-9 hit the Logan seawall head-on and flipped over, scattering debris down the runway. It was Delta’s first fatal crash and Boston’s worst-ever, according to news accounts.

Nowadays, Tomlinson said, there's a computer to tell the pilots when they’re lower than they think they are. “There are a lot of systems in place to prevent that sort of thing now,” he said.

After taking off in Burlington, the plane stopped in Manchester, N.H., to pick up passengers who were trying to get to New York. They'd originally been scheduled for a different flight, according to Paul Houle, a South Carolina man who published a book about the crash in December. 

“That flight was cancelled due to fog, so Delta flew in this jet from Burlington to pick up the passengers,” Houle said. “It would be easier for them to get to New York from Boston.”

A few of the Vermont passengers worked at IBM. Houle said the victims who boarded in Manchester were a cross-section of northern New Englanders, including Chester Wiggin, a Nixon appointee for the Interstate Commerce Commission; a New Hampshire deputy attorney general and his wife; and three generations of a family headed to see the Red Sox play the Yankees.

Houle, a longtime plane crash enthusiast, researched the resulting court case and said a judge eventually found that an air traffic controller had been negligent in communicating with the pilot.

“He left some processes or some information out, and then there was a huge fog bank that obscured the end of the runway, and while that was going on, a flight director on the jet malfunctioned,” Houle said. “When you’re receiving erroneous information from the one piece of the machine that is telling you which way you’re heading, you’ve got a fog bank, you’re not getting the proper information from air traffic control … everything just bungled up on the pilots.”

Leicester resident Debbie Muscato lost her 18-year-old sister, Thomasina, in the crash. The two, 18 months apart in age, grew up in Forest Dale, a village of Brandon, and Thomasina is buried in the 240-year-old cemetery there, Muscato said.

Their mother ran a concession stand at Branbury State Park in Salisbury. After the crash, she stopped working and Muscato stepped in to operate it.

Muscato said her health won’t allow her to attend the memorial, but she’s glad Brennen is organizing it. 

“Tell that woman, 'Thank you so much,'” she said.

Correction, February 11, 2022: A previous version of this story misidentified the Carolina in which Houle lives.

Want to be involved in the Delta 723 memorial? Contact organizer Michelle Brennen at mbrennen09@gmail.com