Transcribed from The Free-Lance Star, Fredericksburg, VA, June 7, 1971, p. 1,5:

49 persons killed in midair collision

By MIKE GOODMAN
and
GEORGE KRIMSKY

 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A jetliner carrying 49 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 Sunday 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.

Garry Butters, 17, a Duarte High School student, rode his motorcycle into the mountain to where he said he could see the jetliner wreckage. He said he saw no signs of survivors.

“Most of the people were thrown up the sides of the gully, maybe 200 yards from the plane,” Butters said, “but some were still strapped in their seats.”

A Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team member, Miner Harkness, 41, flew over the crash site in a sheriff’s helicopter.

“The commercial jetliner was completely blown apart,” he said. “The only thing you could reognize was the tail section. The whole area was on fire–the bodies, the plane, everything was burning.”

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, 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 person in Duante [sic] 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.”

James Hetler, a Duarte resident, said the small plane “had half a wing split off and both pieces were in flames.

“The large plane, which wasn’t burning, stopped in mid-air dead still and floated down like it was in water, belly-first. Then we saw the first puff of smoke, and then a second puff of smoke behind the mountain.”

Another Duarte resident, Frank Olivas, said the larger plane looked “like a broken kite fluttering to the ground.”

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 at 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 were 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.

The plane’s pilot was not identified by the Marines.

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

It was the first fatal crash in the United States of a scheduled airliner since an in-flight collision between an Allegheny Airlines DC9 and a student pilot’s plane left 83 dead near Shelbyville, Ind., on Sept. 9, 1969.

The regular airlines statistics does not include the two football charter flights that crashed with a heavy loss of life last year.

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