The following story wrapped up the Journal’s intense coverage of the Braniff Airways Flight 250 crash northwest of Falls City on August 6, 1966, killing 42 people, appeared in the Journal on Aug. 19, 1966.
The wreckage has been loaded on flatbeds and the investigators who combed it by day have folded their tents, like the Arabs, and as silently have stolen away.
By Bill Schock
Our apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but a parody on his words sort of seemed in order. “The Crash” is history and the last load of wreckage of the once sleek BAC-111 jetliner now is in a hangar in Kansas City, where safety technicians of the civil aeronautics board are continuing their analysis of why the aircraft came to such an inglorious end.
It has been an emotional 12 days no one connected with any phase of “The Crash” is likely to forget. And that includes the Antone Schawangs and Dennis Bauman and many others who first spotted “the ball of fire” the night of Aug. 6, the Guardsmen who helped retrieve the bodies, the morticians and dentists who assisted in the revolting process of identifying 42 mangled bodies and the telephone operators who worked themselves to a frazzle.
So as Falls City screamed itself onto Page 1 of every daily newspaper in this nation on Aug. 7 and 8 so back we are once again to being the county seat of Richardson County. Where the cooperation of the weatherman-or perhaps the lack of it-more often than not is the summer’s No. 1 news story.
Basking in the news limelight for a day or two, terribly tarnished as it was by the shocking loss of life, was a deep-set experience for a small town and rural community surrounding it.
A Glance Backward
In retrospect, several aspects of “The Crash” remain in sharp focus.
Most vivid is the crash scene. To walk in a pelting rain through the smoking wreckage of an airline which only an hour before had been streaking through the sky with 42 persons on board makes an imprint that is quite indelible. Death in its most grotesque forms is not something one sees then dismisses from his mind. Many men around here can tell you this is so.
Dawn on that unbelievable Sunday morning in Tony Schawang’s bean field only magnified the catastrophe. There was the man who maneuvered past the security force and conduced himself on a ghastly trip through the wreckage. His tour didn’t last long.
“I don’t believe I’ll be eating any dinner this day,” he remarked grimly. And he wasn’t so different.
Another memory very poignant is the efficiency of the three government agencies (The civil aeronautics board, the federal aviation agency and the federal bureau of investigation) which arrived on the scene while the rural firemen still were shooting water on occasional patches of flame.
On the Job Quickly
The wet darkness had not given way very long to the post-dawn haze which has a peculiar way of adding an echo to men’s voices even when an effort is being made to keep them subdued. A stranger in dark glasses and carrying a clipboard walked up to the safety patrolman in command.
“I’m Dick Baker of the CAB in Washington and I am the investigator-in-charge,” he informed the trooper. And he wasn’t kidding, he WAS in charge.
It had to be around 6:30 a.m.
Later, your reporter checked out the facts with Ed Slattery, public information officer for the CAB and as cooperative a public servant as one is likely to meet. Slattery said: it went something like this:
Baker heads one of the CAB’s four “Go teams,” in Washington organized for just such a catastrophe. The teams rotate in an alert status for periods of a week at a time. All of the members of each accident investigations team are specialists-and expert specialists-in their fields.
At approximately 2 a.m. (Washington time) the morning of Aug. 7, 45 minutes or less after “The Crash,” all of the members of Baker’s team were at their homes, asleep, when the emergency watch duty officer alerted them to the Nebraska accident. Had Baker not been at home, he would have been carrying an electronic device known as “the bellboy” on his person which would have been triggered by the duty officer. Had the bell rung, Baker would have headed for the nearest phone-and fast.
By 3:15 (1:15 Falls City time) all of the 12 team members and two FAA people were assembled at Hangar 6 at the Washington National Airport. Within half an hour they took off in a 17-passenger Gulfstream. Three hours and 20 minutes later they landed at Rosecrans airport in St. Joseph, where the FAA had cars for their transportation to Falls City. Rooms at Hotel Stephenson already had been arranged by the FAA.
The team’s organizational meeting was held at the hotel at 9 a.m. and everyone concerned with the investigation and then on the scene sat in on the session. “Parties of interest” were invited in by the CAB. They included the FAA, Braniff Airways, British Aircraft Co., Rolls Royce engine people, the Airline Pilots association, the Flight Traffic Dispatchers association. The FBI and the postal inspectors were along as observers.
It was strictly business. The CAB command post was the Gold room at the hotel. After long hours at the crash site sifting through the wreckage and examining virtually ever piece of the ill-fated jetliner, or doing whatever their particular group was assigned to do, the team met at the hotel for nightly evaluation sessions.
The plane which had brought our the Washington contingent early Sunday morning was held up at Rosecrans until the damaged flight recorder may produce a clue. The flight recorder was damaged beyond repair.
At the height of the investigation there were 16 CAB people on the scene, plus many more at posts away who were busy on the crash, 14 FAA representatives, there FBI men, 15 from the British Aircraft Co. and Rolls Royce and two postal observers. Other airlines also had top men here in observer roles.
The caliber of the men was unquestionable. They were the best brains in the civil aviation field-both government and industry. They were professionals in the strictest sense.
And riding, apparently serenely, through it all was Slattery, an old hand at air tragedies. Press associations, newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines all fired their questions at the public information chief-in person and by telephone. If he batted an eye at the continual barrage of telephone calls, he did it on the sly.
For direct quotes, he handed the telephone to Investigator-in-Charge Baker, a former navy pilot eternally busy with the numerous phases of the investigation. No novice at plane crashes, Baker had been through the routine at the United Airlines crash at Salt Lake City and the same airline’s tragedy at Parisville, Tenn.
Such was the operation of the CAB and the FAA.
Great Work by FBI
Down at Prichard Auditorium on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the work was of a far different nature. But the same premium in perfection prevailed as the strong-stomached experts of the FBI-cigars gritted between their teeth for obvious reasons-meticulously identified mangled body after mangled body.
On Sunday afternoon local dentists worked over the victims, making dental charts, and most of them helped intermittently from then on in the identification process. How many dentists over the nation they talked to in the course of the distasteful job, they have no idea. But it was plenty. Dr. Bob Hoban, for one, has quite a memory of the thoroughness of the FBI.
The four local morticians likewise got little sleep as they were at the auditorium night and day helping in the identification and making arrangements of the shipment of bodies when they were released by the CAB. It wasn’t just like falling off a long. There were hitches, government agencies to be contacted, clearances to be obtained.
The Braniff people had their headquarters on the auditorium floor and they kept the telephones humming. They were contacting relatives, they were concerned with the bodies of the victims as well as the few personal effects retrieved from the accident scene and they were working with the morticians toward the release of the bodies. Braniff-or the airline’s insurer-footed the bill for everything from the caskets to housing and feeding relatives and close friends coming here after the crash. And did it in the best of taste, we might add.
Fortunately, people seem to have an inbuilt facility for rising to the occasion. This community responded with one of its finest hours. Too many persons and groups are involved to single them out. Remuneration was not even considered. It simply was the case of a warm community reacting in a wonderful way to a human tragedy.
It is not always thus, a CAB official assured us.
Our people came through with flags flying. Taking it from the CAB; take it from the GI’s here from Ft. Riley; take it from Braniff Airways; take it from the relatives who came on heartbreaking missions. Or leaf through the thank-you letters the post office has been delivering to Mayor Dick Baker.
So now it’s all over except for the memory-and that will be difficult to erase.
What caused “The Crash?”
It can be assumed that the experts by this time are fairly sure in their own minds. But they are keeping it strictly to themselves. Their story will come at the CAB hearing. And there is a chance it maybe held in Falls City.
Last week, this reporter was riding in an army helicopter, taking some aerial photographs for the CAB. We were up about 4,000 feet, southeast of the crash site. In front, and below us, was the tail section which came off the BAC 111 in flight. At the left was the right wing, surrounded by soybeans. A mile ahead to the northwest was the central crash area on the hillside only a stone’s throw from Tony Schawang’s home.
Newsman’s Wild Guess
I took a try at reliving the last minute or so of the catastrophe.
Perhaps clobbered unmercifully by the unbelievable violence of the thunderstorm alot-or perhaps thrown into an impossible attitude or position-the jetliner’s structures were stretched to the breaking point. The weather won out. The tail section and the wing were torn loose from the aircraft as the stress reached its maximum. They fell so close together on the ground they must have come off simultaneously.
Perhaps the separation of the wing from the aircraft also severed fuel lines. The ‘ball of fire’ seen by so many on the ground materialized. Maybe it was only on the outside of the plane. Maybe it was on the inside where the passengers were held in their seats by belts ordered fastened by the Flight 250’s captain when the airliner penetrated the storm area. But there was a fire-there is little doubt about that.
Without the right wing and tail, the aircraft probably spun out of control as the two pilots fought desperately to save the lives of their 38 passengers. It had to be a losing battle. The pilots knew it.
What went on inside the airliner only God knows. Screams? Prayers? Blackout as the plan spun earthward?
But even an airplane’s fatal plunge can be merciful. It doesn’t take long.
Passengers Pitched Out
Perhaps, in a flat spin, counterclockwise, the Braniff ship slammed into the Schawang hillside. The explosive impact burst open the fuselage of the airplane. The passengers were catapulted from their seats by the terrific force and spewed down the hillside to the south.
The wreckage was enveloped in flames.
Life had ended for 42 persons.
But that’s only a guess, and we suppose Ed Slattery would look us squarely in the eye and call it a “pretty uneducated guess” at that. Could be.
The civil aeronautics board comes up with the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ in 93.8 per cent of the air tragedies-and all of this community will be anxious to learn how they’ve got this one figured. Our stake isn’t exactly minor.