Asbury Park, NJ (Off) Plane Plunges Into Ocean, June 1956
RESCUERS SEARCH FOR 74 WHO DIED IN AIRLINER CRASH.
CRIPPLED PLANE FALLS IN ATLANTIC OFF NEW YORK.
Worst Disaster In History Of Scheduled Flight.
New York, June 20 (AP) -- Rescue vessels grappled in 120 feet of water today, seeking the shattered Venezuelan airliner that carried 74 persons to death in a flaming Atlantic Ocean crash.
It was the worst disaster and place in the world in the history of regularly scheduled commercial aviation.
The big plane exploded while dumping its gasoline as it returned to New York, with one engine dead.
Hours later, only six badly smashed bodies had been recovered and brought to New York by a Coast Guard vessel. They were covered with drab, gray military blankets.
But there was no urgency in the salvage task.
From the instant the plane hit water within sight of the lights of New York, it was apparent that everyone aboard had perished in one flaming moment of impact with the sea.
Passengers aloft in another airliner within easy sight of the tragedy prayed for the doomed men, women and children as the Venezuelan craft went down ablaze like a shooting star.
Twenty victims were Americans -- including a mother, father and their son and daughter. Others aboard included 24 Venezuelan school children returning to their homeland for summer vacations.
"Found no survivors -- expect to find none" was the tersely shocking message from the first surface ship on the scene, a Navy transport.
The big plane was only 10 minutes from Idlewild airport and safety when it exploded and slanted down from 9,000 feet at nearly a mile a minute.
It leveled off for an instant, then -- by now one huge ball of flame -- it crashed into a calm sea 32 miles off the coast of Asbury Park, N. J.
Until that last instant the big ship, bound originally for Caracas, Venezuela, had been beating its way back to Idlewild with one engine giving it trouble.
The pilot, Capt. LUIS F. PLATA, was calm as he talked by radio about his engine trouble. It seemed like not more than a routine emergency. Giant airliners ofter turn back to safety with one or more of their engines out.
Back at Idlewild, chefs were preparing special meals for the passengers aboard the Super Constellation -- Liena Aeropostal Venezolana's Flight 283.
As Capt. PLATA drew within 40 miles of Idelwild, he opened his gas tanks to get rid of the 5,000 gallons of high octane gas. Again, his procedure was normal routine in advance of an emergency landing.
'Gas Caught Fire'
But from somewhere came a flickering of sparks, scarcely visible against the brightness of a nearly full June moon. An instant later, plumes of fire shot from beneath the belly of the big ship as the curtain of falling gas caught fire.
Capt. PLATA managed one final message, gasping out in shock, "Gas caught fire." Two minutes later, -- at 1:32 a.m. -- the burning plane vanished into the sea.
Bobbing on dark water under the moon's brilliant rays was an oil slick, studded with baggage, handbags, clothing and other personal items of the doomed humans aboard.
A Coast Guard amphibious plane was sheparding the crippled air giant when it crashed. The pilot Lt. Cmdr. FREDERICK J. HANCOX, could only look on in anguished horror as the airliner plummeted to disaster before his eyes.
"It was a frighterning sight," he said later, his face taut with the tragedy of what he had seen.
The airliner took off from Idlewild at 11:15 p.m. on its 7 1/2 hour flight to Caracas, Valenzuela's capital.
Aboard were 64 passengers and a crew of 10.
Two Young Pianists.
Besides the Latin-American students, there were two young California virtuosos, bound for a classical piano concert tour, a jeweler from Caracas, a stewardess about to switch to an airline desk job, a Latin-American baseball team owner, an American mother and daughter en route to join the woman's husband.
The big plane took off smoothly down the great stretch of the Idlewild runway. Its running lights blinked briefly in the night sky then were swallowed in the darkness to the south.
An hour and six minutes later, flight 253 was over the Atlantic 250 miles east of Norfolk, Va., at that point, its left inboard engine -- No. 2 -- sputtered and quit.
The pilot immediately radioed Idlewild that he was turning back.
For the next 20 minutes the ship's crew tried to feather the crippled engine -- that is adjust the pitch of its propeller blades so the force of the slipstream would not tear it loose or otherwise endanger the plane.
Prop Wouldn't Feather.
The propeller would not feather.
At 12:46 a.m. -- an hour and 28 minutes after takeoff -- Capt. PLATA sent out a "Mayday," traditional SOS of a plane in trouble at sea.
Ashore, the Coast Guard sprang to action in a routine that is automatic even when a crisis seems remote. At 1:02 a.m. a mercy plane left Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the 35 year old HANCOX at the controls.
Twenty-three minutes later HANCOX was withing sight of Flight 253, now winging its way north off the Jersey Shore. HANCOX fell in behind and slightly above the crippled airliner. He discussed the situation with PLATA.
"He sounded calm," HANCOX recalled. "Everything went normal until he started jettisoning fuel. I first saw a few preliminary sparks as the pilot started to jettison. Those developed into tongues of fire and then into a great ball of flame."
'Happened So Fast'
"It all happened so fast. The plane made a few erratic steep dives and plummeted into the sea where the fire burned at least 10 minutes. Its descent was at the rate of 4,000 feet per minute."
"There was a tremendous impact when it hit the sea at a 90 degree angle."
"After the plane crashed into the water, we dropped about 30 parachute flares around the burning debris and were able to see clothing, handbags, and miscellaneous items which looked like paper."
"There were no survivors."
Capt. CHARLES E. FISHER, was headed south to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on an Eastern Air Lines flight when he saw the crippled Venezuelan craft. He heard Capt. PLATA radio the Coast Guard that he was beginning his sescent toward Idlewild.
In San Juan later, FISHER said: "All I could see was a ball of fire. The was down was that of a falling star."
Pilot's Voice Calm.
FISHER also emphasized the note of routine calm in PLATA'S voice as he talked out his troubles by radio before the crash.
MARY BLAIR of Upper Sandusky, Ohio a stewardess on the Eastern plane, said her passengers were calm as the tragedy unfolded beneath their gaze. She added:
"But everybody expressed concern and some said prayers. It was a shame. There the light of New York City, visible on one side and the plane in the water. So close -- and then to have something like that happen."
Coast Guard surface ships hastened toward the scene from several directions.
The first surface craft to reach the disaster site -- at 3:43 a.m. -- was the Navy transport Lt. Robert Craig. It left New York at midnight bound for Bremerhaven, Germany and detoured to try to aid the downed liner.
But all that met the eyes of the Craig's crew was the debris that marked the plane's descent into 120 feet of water. Later, the work of picking up bodies and parts of bodies began.
The Craig put out lifeboats but the resless sea was devoid of any trace of survivors. Crewmen began picking up debris that might help in identifying bodies later.
It was a ghastly task, a pair of baby's swimming trunks, a man's hat, a woman's sandals, a striped skirt, a handbag -- these were among articles picked up.
Occasionally, parts of human bodies surfaced and were picked up. Sharks nosed about the area as the salvage work went on.
The crash occurred on the high seas -- beyond the three-mile territorial limits of the United States. There fore the Civil Aeronautics Board said it had no jurisdiction to investigate the disaster. However, the CAB offered its services to the Venezuelan government.
The State Department expressed the official condolences of this country to the government and people of Venezuela.
The airline -- LAV -- was formed more than 25 years ago and became a full-fledged international carrier in 1946. It was one of the first foreign airlines to operate out of Idlewild after the big airport was opened in 1948.
Several times, LAV won annual safety awards for operating without injury or fatality to passengers.
The Venezuelan students aboard the airliner ranged in age from 12 to 20 years. Two pairs of sisters were among them. All came from wealthy Latin American families.
The youngsters had attended schools in the East and were going home for summer vacations.
The young American pianists aboard were DOROTHY ANN WINTER, 13 and her brother, GEORGE, 12. They were the only children of a Los Angeles County building inspector. Their father, GEORGE, described them as brilliant pianists bound for a South American concert tour. He added.
"They had been working on this a long, long time. They even got their teeth straightened."
Some of the fatalities:
JOSEPHINE SARDINA, 31, Chief Stewardess.
MR. and MRS. DANIEL HANDLER, both 30, and their children MARTIN, 5 and LYNNE, 4.
JOHN PILLA, 58, representative of Cartier's Jewelry Store.
PHILIP A. E. WALKER, 61, relations expert for Gulf Oil Company.
MRS. EILEEN OURSLER, 40, and her daughter, BRENDA, 9, of Toledo, Ohio.
MARIA CHRISTINA RAMOS, 18, Convent School Graduate.
WILLIAM DUNN, 33, Petroleum engineer.
LUCIA TERAN, 18 and her sister LIGIA, 16.
ALBA LOPEZ and her sister MARINA.
The Post-Standard Syracuse New York 1956-06-21