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The Twin Tragedies

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a windy, rain-drenched night 30 years ago, a jetliner crashed into Santa Monica Bay. It was the first major plane crash near Los Angeles International Airport.

Five days later, on another stormy night, it happened again.

Never before or since in the history of commercial aviation have two deadly airliner crashes occurred near the same airport within less than a week.

Both planes hit the water about seven miles west of the runways. The first--a Scandinavian Airlines System DC-8 with 45 people on board--was preparing to land. The second--a United Air Lines Boeing 727 carrying 38--had just taken off.

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At first, it seemed that there might be something about the airport or the weather that linked the two accidents. In the end, it turned out to be more a matter of pilot error, mechanical problems and bad luck.

In both crashes, lifeguards braved heavy seas in small boats in an attempt to rescue survivors. In the first crash, the lifeguards were at least partially successful. In the second, they never had a chance.

Inattention During Landing

Since then, lifeguards have repeatedly conducted air-sea rescue drills in an effort to improve response times and survival rates. The effects of those drills have never been tested--no other airliner has ever crashed into the sea off the coast of Southern California.

After months of investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the SAS plane--which was on a flight from Copenhagen to Los Angeles with an intermediate stop in Seattle--had been preparing to set down in Los Angeles on the night of Feb. 13, 1969, when the cockpit crew noticed a light indicating that the landing gear had not locked properly in the down position.

As is still often the case when winds are blowing offshore, the plane was approaching the airport from the west, over the water, rather than the more common approach over South-Central Los Angeles.

The co-pilot, Ingvar Hansson, was at the controls of the four-engine jet. He later told investigators that he had been watching the pilot’s attempts to make sure the landing gear was deployed properly--and not paying adequate attention to his descent path--when he suddenly realized that the DC-8 had sunk dangerously low.

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Hansson said he tried to pull up, but it was too late.

The big jet hit the water and broke in two. Loose baggage and jagged shards of debris scattered like grapeshot. Fifteen of the 45 people on board were killed. Most of the others were injured.

“We had thought we were going to land,” Azalee Supple of Los Angeles, one of the few uninjured passengers, said at the time. “Then, all of a sudden, we were in the water and didn’t know why.”

“There was terror all around,” said her husband, Dave Supple, who had been seated next to her. “It was chaos. No one knew what to do.”

All passengers and crew members had been strapped in their seats because of the imminent landing. Officials said more than half of those who died were trapped in the tail section, which sank rapidly. The main body of the fuselage--where the Supples were--remained afloat, washed by the rain and the wind-driven seas.

Air traffic controllers, who had watched SAS Flight 933 disappear from their radar screens, immediately notified shoreline lifeguard stations and the Coast Guard.

Buddy McCamey, now 67, a county lifeguard who retired in 1987, said that when the call came in, “all they told us was that they had a plane down out there.”

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McCamey, fellow lifeguard Bill Stidham and a maintenance man who volunteered to help all clambered aboard the Baywatch Redondo, a 28-foot rescue boat, and headed west, in line with the runways at the airport.

“It was really stormy out there--rainy and windy,” McCamey said. “It was not a pleasant night.”

Guided by spotlights aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that had found the downed jetliner, the Baywatch Redondo was the first boat to reach what was left of the DC-8.

“We could just make it out through the rain,” McCamey said. “It was the front half of a big aircraft, floating on the water. There were no signs of life. It was eerie.”

But McCamey said that when Stidham edged their small craft around to the other side of the plane, they could see crew members standing on the wing.

Backing up to the wing, the lifeguard boat began to take on survivors from Flight 933.

“We could only take eight of them in the cabin, where they could be out of the weather,” McCamey said. “One stewardess had a real bad cut on her leg, but the others weren’t too seriously injured.”

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As other boats backed in to take on more survivors, the Baywatch Redondo headed for shore.

Dick Heineman, now 61 and retired after 34 years as a lifeguard for the city and county of Los Angeles, said he was at the dock in Marina del Rey when the Baywatch Redondo and other boats began arriving with survivors.

“Most of the people didn’t look too bad--some shock and some hypothermia--but there were some broken bones and lacerations,” Heineman said. “Most of them were pretty quiet--just sitting there, wrapped in blankets, with the rain still coming down hard.

“I remember one girl, sitting on the engine box [of a boat] with her legs straight out in front of her,” Heineman said. “‘Can you get up?’ someone asked. ‘I don’t think my legs work,’ she answered. It turned out that both of them were broken.”

The lifeguard said a boy, about 8 to 10 years old, was sitting silently in a boat chair, staring into space.

“He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t respond to anything,” Heineman said. “We carried him out in that chair, still frozen. I don’t know what happened to him.”

One Passenger Cool, Unscathed

Heineman said a man hopped briskly off one of the boats, obviously uninjured.

“He was wearing pressed slacks and polished shoes and his hair was perfectly combed,” the lifeguard said. “He walked over to a phone. I think he was calling a taxi.”

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The man, later identified as Andrew Dossett of Santa Monica, got a ride home and went to bed. As a result, he was listed for several hours among the missing and presumed dead. Three weeks later, he flew to Europe on a business trip.

As the injured were rushed to local hospitals, three lifeguards who had arrived at the crash site by boat climbed into the still-floating front section of the fuselage to see if anyone had been overlooked.

“It was real hard to see, like walking into an unlit closet,” said John Stonier, now 57, who has been working as a county lifeguard since 1960.

“The water was up to our chins and debris was scattered everywhere, sloshing back and forth as the waves slammed into the side of the plane,” Stonier said. “We worked our way all the way down to the cockpit, but we didn’t find anyone.”

A few hours later, as tugs were attempting to tow what remained of the fuselage to shore, it filled with water and sank. It was later recovered, but the tail section of the craft--still presumably containing remains of some of the victims--remains on the floor of Santa Monica Bay.

The NTSB said the second crash, on the night of Feb. 18, apparently was coincidental to the first.

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Investigators said that when the three-engine Boeing 727 lifted off the airport’s Runway 24 Left on a flight to Milwaukee, the cockpit crew of United’s Flight 266 knew that one of the plane’s three generators was inoperable.

At that time, taking off in a 727 with one generator out was permitted under federal rules. The rules have since been amended to prohibit the practice.

The jetliner climbed steadily through heavy rain. Then, three minutes after liftoff, came a radio message from the cockpit: “I have a fire light warning on Engine No. 1.”

Subsequent investigation determined that the warning was erroneous, but no one in the cockpit knew that. The crew asked for--and received--permission to return to the airport.

The NTSB later concluded that the crew shut down Engine No. 1, and with it, a second generator.

Experts theorized the remaining generator became overloaded and shut itself down, leaving the plane without electrical power. They further theorized the loss of power plunged the cockpit into darkness and rendered key instruments inoperable, causing the crew to lose control of the jetliner.

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Air traffic controllers watched on radar as the plane began a slow turn back toward the airport, then disappeared from their screens. The jetliner plunged nose-first into the sea, shattering on impact.

For the second time in five days, controllers broadcast an Alert 33--the signal for a major emergency.

Stonier said he was working the lifeguards’ switchboard that night “when all of a sudden, the whole thing lit up. ‘There’s another plane down,’ someone said. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

Stonier said he and four other men grabbed their gear, leaped aboard the Baywatch Redondo and headed out to sea.

The lifeguard said the rescue crewmen groped their way through the night, hoping to find a large piece of floating wreckage and survivors.

“After a while, we began to smell jet fuel, floating on the surface, so we knew we were there,” Stonier said. “Then stuff started coming to the surface--seats, luggage, clothing, a teddy bear, parts of bodies. It was absolute horror.”

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“Bring guns,” the skipper of another lifeguard boat radioed to shore. “There are sharks in the area.”

To the would-be rescuers, it was instantly clear that none of the 32 passengers and six crew members could have survived.

At Santa Monica Receiving Hospital, a nurse told a doctor: “It looks as though no one needs us tonight.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1 Week, 2 Crashes

It has been 30 years since two jets crashed into Santa Monica Bay, seven miles west of LAX.

2/13/69: Scandinavian Airlines DC-8 was going to land

2/18/69: United Airlines Boeing 727 had just taken off

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