The holiday season is always filled with excitement and anticipation. Stores of all types feature sales and gimmicks, always competing for the most eye-catching, dramatic way to entice shoppers inside. But sometimes these promotions do not work out as planned.
In December 1965, North Towne Shopping Center was hosting what they hoped would be a memorable holiday program. As families gathered to await Santa’s arrival, Santa and his “helper” would parachute down into the parking lot to the delight of those waiting.
The parachutists for that day were Bill Fleming, 29, starring in the role of Santa, and his “helper,” 40-year-old Cornelius “Connie” O’Rourke. They would jump from the plane at about 3,000 feet. To help make it easier for the watchers to spot the pair as they descended, O’Rourke had been equipped with smoke bombs on his legs. The pilot was 23-year-old Rick Friend.
O’Rourke was an experienced parachutist with a history of almost 1,000 jumps. He also was a parachute instructor and an operator of a parachute loft licensed by the Milwaukee FAA District. “Connie,” as his friends called him, had met the federal qualifications to repair and pack parachutes.
The festivities were supposed to start with O’Rourke, dressed as an elf, jumping first with the bombs smoking, and then Fleming, dressed as Santa, to follow.
According to his statement later, Fleming said that Connie jumped and deployed his parachute. It became tangled in the apparatus for the smoke bombs attached to his leg. Connie struggled to free the cord as he fell about 1,000 feet.
After he couldn’t free the first parachute, Connie deployed his emergency chute. Unfortunately, the emergency parachute became entangled in the cord from the first chute, and both of the chutes streamed uselessly above Connie as he fell.
Most of the people in the crowd were not aware of what was actually taking place right before their eyes. The announcer that day told them the first parachutist was actually a dummy. But there were some who knew the truth. Bill Fleming knew that Connie was in trouble, and he bravely jumped from the plane. Both Bill and Connie’s wives were in the crowd, no doubt horrified by the events unfolding.
O’Rourke fell at the speed of 100 miles per hour. Though nothing good can be said about these events, at least O’Rourke did not come down where it was originally intended, the middle of the parking lot. He landed in the back yard of Dr. C.B. McIntosh. Thankfully, the McIntosh family was not home that day.
Connie’s body hit an oak tree first, but that did little to slow his descent. His body left a 1-foot crater in the yard. Witnesses saw O’Rourke hit the ground and knew there was no hope for survival. Police came and took Connie’s body to Rockford Memorial Hospital to await the arrival of his wife and friends.
Bill Fleming’s jump was completed without injury, and he was rushed to the hospital to be with Connie’s wife.
Federal inspectors went over the parachute in an attempt to find the cause of the horrible accident. It was likely that O’Rourke had packed his own chute, and the inspectors found nothing to indicate there was any malfunction — a fact that no doubt brought little comfort to his family and friends. Connie was survived by his wife and two little girls.
A fictional version of this story authored by local historian and teacher Ernie Fuhr is included in the bookSecret Rockford, released earlier this year. Secret Rockford contains stories about Rockford written by a variety of authors and edited by Michael Kleen.
Copyright © 2014 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events