64 Die in Reno Crash of ‘Gamblers’ Special’
A chartered “gamblers’ special” airliner carrying 67 people crashed and burned shortly after taking off from Reno early Monday, killing all but three of those aboard.
The pilot of the Minneapolis-bound four-engine Lockheed Electra turboprop aircraft radioed the Reno tower moments before the crash, saying that the plane had developed a vibration and he wanted to return to the airport for an emergency landing, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ed Pinto.
The Galaxy Airlines flight lifted off the runway at Reno Cannon International Airport at 1:05 a.m., and crashed minutes later near a heavily traveled main highway three miles away.
The Electra was the same aircraft chartered for two months last year by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson stopped using the plane after it was severely buffeted by tornadoes on a flight to Dallas in May.
A sheriff’s deputy who witnessed the crash said he believed the plane already was in flames when it struck the ground.
The 58-ton aircraft cut a swath of 300 yards across a recreation vehicle sales lot and U.S. 395.
Narrowly missing a motel, a bar and several other businesses, the plane apparently slammed into a ditch, bounced into the air, then skidded into the ground again, tearing itself to shreds. The plane was loaded with about 1,000 gallons of fuel.
Flaming wreckage and bodies were flung across the highway. The dead included 59 passengers and all five crew members, according to Galaxy.
Names of the dead passengers were not immediately available. Los Angeles attorney David Mc Govern, speaking for the charter airline, said it was difficult to ascertain all the correct identities because “people apparently like to use assumed names on gambling junkets.”
The five crew members killed in the crash were identified, however, in a brief statement released on behalf of Galaxy by Reno attorney Bruce Laxalt, nephew of U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt.
The flight crew was made up of Allen Heasley (said by former candidate Jackson to be the pilot), Kevin Fieldsa and Mark Freels. Flight attendants were listed as Heather Coston and Donna Cutillo.
Laxalt would only say that all five were from Florida.
The three survivors were passengers.
One of them , George Lamson Jr., 17, of St. Paul, Minn., who escaped with minor burns, cuts and bruises, told a surgeon at Washoe Medical Center: “The plane started to descend, made a right turn and then there was an explosion.”
“He (Lamson) was sitting on the left-hand side when an explosion occurred,” said Jack Bulavsky, spokesman for Washoe Medical Center. “All of a sudden he found himself outside the airplane, still strapped into his seat. He undid his (seat belt) buckle and walked away.”
Lamson was described as “quite lucid” and apparently suffered burns on the face, hands and forearm and a cut forehead.
The youth’s father, George Lamson Sr., 41, also escaped, but suffered a fractured skull and other injuries and was reported in critical but stable condition Monday night. The third survivor, Robert Miggins, 45, of Minneapolis, suffered burns over 80% of his body and was in critical condition in Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital in Las Vegas, where he was flown for treatment.
“It was terrible,” said witness Dennis Bickel, who lives three blocks from the crash scene. “There were airplane parts and seats and people all over . . . right on the road. . . . It’s amazing anyone survived.”
Kim Fisher, Bickel’s girlfriend, said, “We heard two explosions, then saw the flames on the street.”
“All I saw,” witness Robert Wilson said, “was a mushroom of flame. I saw the pilot running from the wreckage on fire.” There was no immediate confirmation that the pilot got out of the plane.
Wilson said he tried to help one of the two men who got out of the tangled, flaming fuselage.
“He had a big gash in his head. He was screaming that his father had died in the crash,” Wilson said. Apparently the victim he aided was young Lamson.
Mark Brenner said he was driving on U.S. 395 as the plane took off and got into trouble.
“It (the Electra) just didn’t get any height,” he told a reporter. “Then it disappeared behind a building. Then I heard an explosion. . . . I saw a guy coming of the plane screaming.”
Brenner said he and another man grabbed the survivor, whose clothing was on fire, and told him to lie down and roll the flames out. “We poured dirt on him to put out the flames.”
Reno airport officials said the Electra had carried a Super Bowl party group to Reno last Friday for a weekend at Caesars Tahoe casino in Lake Tahoe, about 30 miles to the west.
A spokesman for Caesars said the plane took another party to Oakland for the Super Bowl game at Stanford on Sunday, returned the same night, and picked up the Minnesota party at Reno.
Dallas Cowboys star running back Tony Dorsett flew on the ill-fated plane from Oakland to Reno, a spokesman for the team said, and took another flight later to Dallas.
Marvin E. Ramacher of Reno said he believed his sister, Karen Ann Weaver, and her boyfriend, Don Spector, 48, both of Minneapolis, were aboard the Galaxy flight.
Ramacher said other members of his family had come to Reno from Minnesota by other transportation. But at the last minute, he said, his sister and her boyfriend got onto a charter flight and flew into Reno on Friday.
As of late Monday, he still had no definite word on whether his sister and her friend had boarded the return flight and died in the fiery crash.
Ramacher, his father and several other members of the family were at the crash scene, staring disconsolately at the blackened wreckage and talking to reporters from time to time.
“This,” he said, “is absolutely terrible. We haven’t heard anything from anybody, even though they have passenger lists. We can’t say for sure she was on there, but we don’t know where she could be. How long do we have to wait?”
Workers finally began to untangle the wreckage shortly after 12:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the accident. They began extracting bodies from the crumpled aluminum and scorched plastic, carefully noting the position and location of each.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene, supervising the work and trying to determine the exact cause of the crash.
But it will be months before the cause is finally determined, they said. The burned-out Electra, whose largest recognizable part was a section of wing, will be reconstructed as much as possible as part of the search.
James E. Burnett, chairman of the NTSB, was at the site, directing the investigation. He said his technicians would begin looking for the so-called black box--a cockpit voice recorder and a separate instrument data recorder--"once the bodies are out of the way.” Burnett said NTSB officials from Miami were in Fort Lauderdale, where Galaxy Airlines is headquartered, to inspect maintenance and repair records for the aircraft.
Jackson Flight He declined to comment about an incident last year in which the plane struggled through heavy weather during a Jackson campaign flight. He said that to the best of his knowledge, Galaxy has had no other accidents.
There were several eyewitness reports of flames trailing from the Electra shortly before it crashed, but Burnett declined to comment on that.
The press release handed out by attorney Laxalt said only, “Galaxy Airlines is cooperating fully with the National Transportation Safety Board and believes it would be inappropriate to make any statement concerning the accident until that investigation is completed.”
The Lockheed L-118 turboprop that crashed in Reno was one of 170 of its type manufactured in Burbank between 1957 and 1962. About 100 are still in service around the world, according to a company spokesman.
Named Electra in honor of a famous 1930s aircraft of the same name (the one flown by Amelia Earhart, among others), the first model went into service in January, 1959. On Feb. 3 of that year, an Electra crashed while landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York, killing 65 people.
Two others crashed in the next few months. A fourth Electra sucked a flock of starlings into its engines while taking off from Boston, lost power and crashed, killing 59 people.
There have been three Electra crashes in the last eight months.
The Electra that crashed Monday went into service in 1960.
In St. Paul, Adrienne Lamson, wife and mother of two of the survivors, said she is not ordinarily a religious person. “But,” she said, “this is ons time I believe in it. . . . We’re still in a state of shock. . . . It seems God must have been listening to me.”
She said she spoke to her son on the telephone. “He said it happened so fast he couldn’t remember anything. He said they were up in the air and they were down.” Lamson is a senior at Cretin High School in St. Paul, she said, and her husband is a carpenter.
She described the charter flight as “a kind of junket . . . gambling, skiing. . . . My son went there for the skiing. He is too young for gambling.” Several friends and relatives learned of the crash when they went to Hubert Humphrey Charter Terminal at Twin Cities Airport to meet the flight.
Among them was Andrew Connoy, who said he was there to meet a pair of newlyweds who had made the trip West.
“One of the passengers called me about 2 a.m. (Minneapolis time) and said they’d be a little late.”