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Plane crash kills 44

November 9, 2007 |  9:33 am


Nov. 9-21, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_1110_plane All that remained of the 42-ton aircraft fit into 14 cardboard cartons and two wooden crates that the sailors of the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea hauled ashore in Long Beach after the debris was plucked from the Pacific.

The broken bodies of 19 people were reverently removed from a refrigerated locker on the carrier, taken past an honor guard of six Marines and transported to Mottell's & Peek Mortuary for examination.

Pan American's "Romance of the Skies" Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, a military Stratofreighter modified for civilian use, had vanished Nov. 8, 1957, carrying 36 passengers and a crew of eight on a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. The aircraft had passed the "point of no return" and last reported its position at 29 degrees, 29 minutes north, 141 degrees, 35 minutes west about 5:04 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, according to The Times. There was no further radio contact and no message of distress.

Coast Guard Cmdr. William E. Chapline noted that the crew should have been able to broadcast a distress message during the 20 minutes it would have taken the aircraft to descend from cruising altitude to the ocean. But there was nothing. The four-engine plane simply never arrived.

The Philippine Sea left Long Beach on Nov. 9, carrying Deke Houlgate, who filed stories for The Times. At first,  Houlgate and AP photographer Harold Filan intended to record a rescue mission, but lingering hope slowly faded as days of searching failed to find any trace of the aircraft.

Airline officials refused to speculate on what became of their missing plane. "You will hear rumors of an explosion or sabotage or whatever, but the plain fact is: We have no idea what might have occurred," a spokesman told The Times.

1957_1109_plane_google_4 Chapline said the Stratocruiser was a well-built aircraft that would have been able to float after being ditched. (In fact a Pan Am Stratocruiser on the same flight path had gone into the ocean Oct. 16, 1956, after losing the No. 1 and No. 4 engines, but the plane landed near a Coast Guard weather ship and everyone was rescued).

Unidentified civilian and military air authorities theorized that the plane might have crashed without sending a distress signal because of an explosion caused by broken fuel connection at a carburetor that sprayed gas on a manifold; an inboard engine threw a propeller through the flight engineer's position, cutting all power instantly; a time bomb exploded; an electrical fire knocked out the radio and forced the plane into the sea.

The debris was finally located Nov. 14, 1957, in a 30-square-mile area 955 miles northeast of Honolulu.

A search plane reported: "Highly probable wreckage... Six bodies in the water... One still strapped in the seat... No rafts or life jackets visible... Three more bodies spotted... One appears to be in a life jacket."

The pilot later reported: "Tenth body sighted... Debris appears to be brown and yellow objects, possible seat covers and one life raft cover."

1957_1110_crew_listSailors reported shark attacks in their area and The Times said that one shark had to be shot before a body could be recovered.

Houlgate wrote: "The bodies floating on the surface... made at best a poor target on radar and were nearly invisible from the air. If it were not for the systematic search plan executed by this carrier the bodies might never have been found and the question of what happened to the airliner never answered." He reported that two victims' watches were stopped at 7:25 and another was stopped at 5:25, apparently set to coincide with Honolulu time.

"The first body recovered earlier today from the sea was that of a man wearing dark clothing and a yellow life jacket," Houlgate wrote. "The body was without shoes as were many of the others recovered later.

"All the bodies had external injuries and multiple fractures. Cause of death was considered to be from extensive injuries rather than exposure or drowning."

Coast Guard Capt. Donald B. MacDairmid, a search-and-rescue expert, told The Times that "the description of the wreckage and condition of the passengers indicate that the plane 'definitely went into the water in a bad or uncontrolled ditching' with the passengers warned of a state of emergency."

Houlgate cataloged the recovered debris, which was laid out in 50-foot square on the carrier's hangar deck under Marine guard:

  • A piece of yellow sheet metal reading "944 FW-R-SIDE COCKPIT" in grease pencil.
  • A wide seat "ravaged by flames " that was "blackened and grooved."
  • A ladies washroom door with printing in English and some Oriental language.
  • An emergency exit sign and light fixture, probably from the cabin.
  • Pillows, some with white covers.
  • Several gas tank floats.
  • The snapshot of a man.
  • A cabinet that could have been used to hold glasses or paper cups.
  • A woman's wool suit.
  • A paper sack marked "Rubber Gloves."
  • A white toy dog made of fabric with a ribbon around its neck.
  • Three cases for 35-millimeter slides.
  • An orange squeezer.
  • A gray and black checked wool suit.
  • Three oil-splotched serving trays.
  • Half of a blue suitcase and one side of another.
  • Two leather, fur-lined gloves.
  • A woman's white purse and a green one, both smudged with oil.
  • Several pieces of a cigarette flip box.
  • A Christmas card reading "Greetings from our house to your house" with the picture of a baby.
  • A notebook charred on the edges, with Oriental writing in pencil.
  • Another story says packets of letters were discovered, presumably air mail that the plane was carrying.

1957_1110_mcgrath_2 Air crash investigators flew out to the carrier to begin examining the debris before the ship landed in Long Beach, but they refused to discuss their findings.

The recovered victims, The Times said, were:

Robert Alexander, Pan Am co-pilot on vacation
Margaret Alexander, his wife
Judy Alexander, their 9-year-old daughter

Yvonne Alexander, flight attendant

Mrs. Tomiko Boyd, wife of Master Sgt. Robert Boyd, stationed in Korea.
Capt. Gordon H. Brown, the pilot.

Mrs. Anna Clack
Scott Clack, her son, 6

Lt. Cmdr. Gordon Cole.
Eugene Crosthwaite, the plane's purser.

William Deck, en route to marry a Japanese woman in Tokyo

Edward Ellis, Hillsborough, Calif.

Robert Halliday/Holliday of New South Wales, Australia

Dr. William Hagan, Louisville, Ky.

Nicole Madeline La Maison (or Lamaison), wife of Renault executive Robert La Maison, who was also on the plane

Thomas McGrail, Department of State, cultural attache in Burma

Phillip Sullivan, Department of State, Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs

Toyoe Tanaka

Casiana Soehartijah van der Byl, a history teacher in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Subsequent investigation revealed carbon monoxide in the victims' body tissue. According to a report on the crash, "the board has insufficient tangible evidence at this time to determine the cause of the accident."

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Read about crashes of Boeing 377s.

A San Francisco Chronicle story features Ken Fortenberry, whose father was navigator on the plane, and Gregg Herken, whose favorite elementary school teacher, Marie McGrath, was a flight attendant on the plane.