Memories of Survival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask about that day five decades ago, and they'll calmly tell you they easily could have been among the 35 who perished.

One survivor credits a guardian angel, a divine protector that followed him from rescue to hospital recovery. Another says it was a gift from her Lord.

The newspaper headlines and newsreels have long since faded from most memories. And the boulder-strewn Chatsworth mountainside is now silent and peaceful except for an occasional jack rabbit.

But for several of the 14 who survived the July 12, 1949, crash of a Standard Airlines plane--at the time, the Southland's deadliest aviation accident--each day is still precious, each year still a gift.

"When you come that close to not being here, or being told they are going to take your foot off, it changes everything in your life," said Caren Marsh Doll, who was known at the time as Caren Marsh, a stage and screen actress who was Judy Garland's stand-in on "The Wizard of Oz."

The Hollywood native was one of 49 passengers and crew members flying from New York's La Guardia Airport to the Lockheed Air Terminal, known today as Burbank Airport.

The Civil Aeronautics Board had ordered Standard Airlines of Long Beach to shut down its business by July 20, the result of regulation violations.

The plane was a C-46 or Commando--a popular military workhorse and the largest twin-engine transport plane used during World War II.

About 45 minutes before the crash, two passengers brawled. Over Riverside, about 7:35 a.m., Pilot Roy G. White radioed the Lockheed tower, asking police to meet the plane.

To keep the peace, stewardess Vicy Zelsdorf, 25, offered to change seats with one of the men. She was 4 1/2 months pregnant and heading home.

During the flight, Zelsdorf had chatted with Marsh, 30. Marsh sat about three rows from the back of the plane. She had been working in New York and was flying home to attend a cousin's wedding.

The petite, brown-eyed brunet, a talented dancer since childhood, was already a familiar face on stage and film. Fresh out of Hollywood High School--where Judy Garland was a classmate--Marsh won an MGM movie dance role.

In 1946, she was cast as Winifred McMasters in "Navajo Kid," a western starring Bob Steele and filmed in the Chatsworth hills.

A year later, she was voted Miss Sky Lady of 1947. The prize: free flying lessons. After she had soloed, Marsh printed up leaflets listing her credits, then took off in a two-seater to shower MGM, Paramount, RKO and other studios with the fliers.

The publicity stunt worked, and more roles followed, including "Wild Harvest" with Alan Ladd.

"She was cute," recalled George Trebat, then 22, and fresh out of New York University with a degree in banking and finance. Like Marsh, he was seated about three rows from the back of the plane.

Young, single and curious about the other coast, Trebat was headed west to look up relatives in San Gabriel and find a job.

Also in the rear of the plane, on the right side, was Pvt. Robert E. Steinweg, 21, who looked forward to 30 days of furlough at home in Petaluma, Calif. He had just finished a three-year stint in the Army and left Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.

Seated near a window exit, Larry Bettis, 29, and his wife, Mary, 36, were on their way home to Long Beach after visiting relatives in Missouri. A thick fog enshrouded the plane, he recalled.

That's all anyone remembered of the flight before the C-46 slammed into a peak in the Santa Susana Mountains north of Chatsworth.

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"I remember going through the seat right in front of me," Larry Bettis said.

With a gash across his head, he ended up beside a cabin door near the pilot's compartment. Flames licked the battered plane.

"I crawled out the wing," he said, "then fell, I don't remember how many feet, to the ground."

Mary Bettis was still in her seat when she regained consciousness, then quickly climbed through a window. She found her husband outside and used his shirt to make a bandage for his head.

Trebat remembers little that happened immediately after the crash--the third deadliest in the nation in 1949. Federal investigators later determined the plane had been flying too low and that pilot error caused the crash.

News stories recounted how Trebat and passenger Judy Frost helped pull four passengers through the plane's split belly.

"What I remember, I was sitting on a fire break about 50 feet from the plane and it was burning," Trebat said. "I was told, but I don't remember, that I helped pull people out of the plane."

The pregnant Zelsdorf can never forget the dead, including two young children.

She was seriously hurt; her lower back and ribs were broken and her pelvis was fractured in three places. "I was told not to have the child, because I was so severely injured," she said.

Steinweg was just plain lucky.

A July 13, 1949, Times story described how he staggered from the wreckage down a fire trail to a Mesa Drive home.

"I was walking down a road and some lady stopped me," he recalled. "And I said I better go to Petaluma."

That lady may well have been Winifred Steele, now 86, of Lilac Lane. She and her husband, Jim, are now the only residents of the lane who were living there in 1949.

Steele and a neighbor saw a man resting under an oak tree with tickets in his pocket. "He didn't know what was happening," she said.

That day, Steele helped guide ambulances on the narrow dirt road near the isolated crash site. One of those ambulances carried Marsh, whose foot was crushed by the plane's collapsed seats.

"Red hamburger with white noodles sticking out, that's what my foot looked like," she recalled.

After climbing out of the wreckage, she said she thought for a moment she had died because men in long robes were walking around her. Angels, perhaps.

But the bearded and barefoot men in old newspaper photos of the crash were Krishna Venta, a leader of a monastery in nearby Box Canyon, and one of his disciples, Brother Paul. Both had rushed to the mountain to help victims.

Later, at a Van Nuys hospital, a doctor told Marsh her foot would have to be amputated.

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The injured and expectant Zelsdorf and her husband never gave up hope for their baby. Four months after the crash, their son, Gary, was born, and the Walter Winchell radio show and the Los Angeles Times heralded him as a miracle crash baby.

Zelsdorf, now Vicy Young, 75, of Cathedral City, stopped flying as a stewardess but remains an active advocate for infant seats on planes.

"A baby can go flying in the air and even kill a passenger," she said. "It's like a suitcase loose in the air."

Now 71, Robert Steinweg is retired from the construction business and living in Santa Rosa. After the crash, he was on newsreels in theaters and on TV news. While recuperating in a hospital room, he said, he had a vision of two heavenly visitors. "You always got a guardian angel," he remembered.

He eventually returned to the Army, serving in the Korean War. But he said he never flew again, turning down opportunities to visit Europe.

The brush with death made George Trebat more daring in business, he said, pushing him to reach his goal of becoming a president of a small New Jersey bank.

"I decided I'd rather live 10 minutes like a lion, rather than 100 years like a mouse," said Trebat, now 72 and living in Edison, N.J. "In other words, I got a feeling that life is short and it can be vicious."

The crash influenced the career of Larry Bettis, now 79 and a Laguna Niguel resident. As a firefighter in Long Beach, he rose through the ranks during 25 years of service.

When rescuing the elderly or young children, Bettis said, he understood their helplessness because "you realize what position they are really in, because you had been there."

Desperate to save her foot, Marsh sought another doctor at Cedars of Lebanon, now Cedars-Sinai, where a surgeon promised she would be able to walk but probably not dance again.

"I refused to accept that," she said. "I was in a hospital for a month. And I refused to picture myself not able to dance."

Tap was out, but eventually Marsh took up Hawaiian dance, then belly dancing. Today, at 80, Caren Marsh Doll lives in Palm Springs and teaches country and western and ballroom dancing.

For the last 10 years, she has set aside the last Monday of each month to volunteer at a Palm Springs stroke center, where she coaxes patients to try to stand up, sway to the music and forget their troubles.

"I was so thankful to just be alive. Things that bothered me before . . . nothing," she said. "I have become much more peaceful and less worried about anything."

News researchers Ron Weaver and Robin Mayper contributed to this report.

Local Residents Whose Lives Were Changed by Plane Crash 50 Years Ago Look Back

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