Transcribed from Rome News-Tribune, Rome, GA, June 7, 1971, p. 1:

49 Perish as Marine jet, airliner collide

Wreckage, bodies strewn over rugged mountain area

 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A jetliner carrying 48 persons cartwheeled “like a shooting star” into a mountain region and exploded after a collision with a Marine jet fighter. The only known survivor was one of the two crewmen aboard the military plane.

The Saturday night crash of the Hughes Air West DC9 was the worst civilian plane disaster in California history. And it was the first crash in the United States of a scheduled airliner in more than a year.

The radar interception officer of the Marine F4 Phantom jet parachuted to safety after the in-flight collision east of here.

He was the only reported survivor, but a helicopter pilot later reported sighting a parachute which he said he believed to be that of the pilot of the F4. It was sighted near the wreck of the fighter plane.

Nine bodies were spotted in the wreckage of the twin-engine airliner, which crashed into a deep gorge in two pieces and was still smoldering hours after the disaster.

Wreckage was spread over a mile-square, tree-studded area.

Fire officials and sheriff’s deputies who flew over the wreckage before darkness fell said they were convinced no one aboard the DC9 could have survived.

A thick fog prevented sheriff’s search and rescue teams from climbing down a cliff to the airliner or reaching the fighter during the night.

The gorge is too narrow to land a helicopter, officials said.

The crash occurred over the mountainous Van Tassel Canyon area of Angeles National Forest. Authorities described the region as “the most rugged area in Los Angeles County and perhaps in California.”

The nearest inhabited area is the town of Duarte, about five miles from the crash site and 25 miles east of Los Angeles.

The Air West airliner, Flight 706 carrying 43 passengers and a five-man crew, had taken off from Los Angeles International Airport only 18 minutes before the collision. It was en route to Salt Lake City, Boise and Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash.

The F4 was flying from Fallon Air Force Base in Nevada to its home base at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station near suburban Santa Ana.

Dozens of persons in Duarte who witnessed the crash said there was an explosion “like a sonic boom” almost immediately after the two planes came together. Fiery debris showered down and scattered over a wide area. Minor brush fires were touched off by the flaming wreckage.

The two planes separated as they crashed, several eye-witnesses said, and the airliner tumbled end over end “like a shooting star.”

“I heard a boom and saw two flaming objects going behind the mountain,” said Jim Fisbie of Duarte. “It exploded again when it was behind the mountain.”

The jet fighter fell at Mt. Bliss, about a mile from the jetliner. The area is about 3,000 feet above sea level.

The Federal Aviation Administration said there was good visibility at the time of the collision, at an altitude of about 12,000 feet. The airliner was on its specific flight route and the Marine F4 was flying under visual rules, the FAA said.

A spokesman said air controllers saw the two planes on radar coming toward each other just before the crash. He said there was no radio transmissions from either plane before the crash.

Neither Air West nor the Marine Corps would comment on how the planes could have collided.

The surviving marine crewman, 1st Lt. Christopher Schiess, 24, of Salem, Ore., landed on a fire road and was picked up by sheriff’s deputies who took him to Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte. He was listed in good condition with leg and head injuries.

Officials at Hughes Air West identified the pilot of the DC9 as Capt. Theodore Nicolay, 50. The other crew members were: copilot, Price Bruner, 49; stewardesses Helen Koskimies, 30, Patricia Shelton, 28, and Joan Pluylaar, 34, all of Seattle, Wash.

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