The day fiery disaster fell from the sky

Times Staff Writer

In a dream sequence that recurs throughout the 1987 movie “La Bamba,” two planes fly over a schoolyard where youths play basketball in slow motion. The planes collide, explode and shower wreckage across the school and neighborhood.

That bit of Hollywood make-believe dramatizes an event that occurred 50 years ago Wednesday in the skies above Pacoima Junior High. The crash between a military jet and a Douglas aircraft killed three students on the ground, the military pilot and all four members of the Douglas crew. More than 70 people were injured in the accident, which generated more than $10 million in lawsuits -- about $7 billion in today’s dollars.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 31, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now: The L.A. Then and Now column in Sunday’s California section about a collision between a fighter jet and a transport plane over Pacoima in 1957 incorrectly stated that the accident generated more than $10 million in lawsuits, which would be about $7 billion in today’s dollars. The correct figure in today’s dollars is about $70 million. Also, the last name of Dr. Virgil Arklin was misspelled as Arkin.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now: The L.A. Then and Now column in the Jan. 28 California section, about a collision of two planes over Pacoima in 1957, incorrectly stated that the accident generated more than $10 million in lawsuits, which would be about $7 billion in today’s dollars. The correct figure in today’s dollars is about $70 million. Also, the last name of Dr. Virgil Arklin was misspelled as Arkin.

At least one student developed an intense fear of flying after the accident: 15-year-old Richard Steven Valenzuela, who soon became known as singing star Ritchie Valens.


Valens “wasn’t even at school that day,” recalled Bill Frazer, 63, of Mission Hills, who was in the auditorium practicing for his ninth-grade graduation when the planes hit. Valens was at his grandfather’s funeral.

Two years later, Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) died in an Iowa plane crash. The event became known as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie.”

The 1957 midair crash was the catalyst for new laws restricting test flights over populated areas and for a new statewide school disaster plan.

For years, the only reminder at the school has been a commemorative plaque from the Red Cross.

On Wednesday, Principal Paul Del Rosario and a few teachers will plant a mulberry tree in memory of the victims.

The cause of the crash was settled long ago: the pilots’ failure to see each other, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board, a precursor to the National Transportation Safety Board.


But the emotions the crash wrought remain unsettled.

“I can’t drive up Terra Bella Street, which runs along the back side of the school’s athletic field, without remembering those bent and burned goal posts and the field covered with debris,” Frazer said in a recent interview.

“We heard the boom, felt the auditorium shake and watched the lights blink twice, then go out,” he recalled. “We knew something big had happened but didn’t know what.”

The following details come from Times news stories.

On Jan. 31, 1957, a clear, crisp Thursday morning, twin Scorpion fighter jets from Northrop’s Palmdale facility engaged in routine “scissors interceptions” -- first one plane, then the other, served as a target to test radar equipment.

At 11:18 a.m., one moved into a wide turn 25,000 feet above the San Fernando Valley. As it completed the turn, the jet slammed into the wing of a DC-7B transport plane returning to Douglas Aircraft’s Santa Monica plant on a routine test run.

The Scorpion burst into flames. The pilot, Roland Earl Owen, 35, of Palmdale, went down with the jet in La Tuna Canyon; the radar operator, Curtiss A. Adams, 27, parachuted to safety.

The DC-7B pilot, William Carr, 36, of Pacific Palisades, struggled to control the plane as it went into a dive and final spin. Copilot Archie R. Twitchell, 50, of Northridge transmitted the last radio message from the crippled plane:

“Uncontrollable, uncontrollable ... midair collision.... We are going in.... We’ve had it, boys. I told you we should have had chutes.” A brief silence, then: “Say goodbye to everybody.”

The remains of Carr, Twitchell and the other crew members -- radio operator Roy Nakazawa, 28, and flight engineer Waldo B. Adams, 42, both of Los Angeles -- were found in the fuselage, which smacked into the ground at Pacoima Congregational Church, adjacent to the school. Part of an engine crashed through the roof of the church auditorium, smashing windows and destroying that building.

“I thought the church was being bombed,” Doris McClain, 27, told The Times. She was in the church office with her 18-month-old daughter, Kathy. Both escaped injury.

About 80 students stood in the schoolyard transfixed, watching the plane hurtle toward them. Some dived to the ground; others were running when the blast of debris overtook them. Three died: Ronnie Brann, 13; Robert Zallan, 12; and Evan Elsner, 12.

“Someone ran into me and I fell down,” Wallace Roger, 13, told a Times reporter. “Gasoline was spraying all across the field. When the plane hit, the shock waves rolled me over and over and over. I saw one boy on fire. Another boy beat out the flames with his leather jacket.”

The disaster was a nightmare for parents. Virginia Brann raced to the school in a panic to check on her son. “You’re lucky, madam,” a police officer told her. “Parents of the dead children have all been told.”

She returned home to wait for her son. When he didn’t appear, she went to the hospital, where a doctor told her Ronnie was dead.

“No, no!” she cried. “I didn’t even kiss him goodbye this morning.”

Heroes emerged: Physical education teacher John Vardanian, 34, rushed onto the field, where he saw 12-year-old Albert Ballou, whose left leg was nearly severed above the knee. Vardanian used a rag and a shred of metal from the plane to form a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until an ambulance could get through the crowds. Albert’s leg was amputated at the hospital.

Principal David Schwartz calmed students and parents alike. Teachers drove injured students to hospitals.

Local physician Virgil P. Arkin sprinted from his office two blocks away, putting a splint on a boy’s leg with a piece of pipe from the wreckage. “Many of the bad wounds bled very little, due to flash burns from the exploding gasoline that cauterized the injuries,” he told The Times.

Television and radio news stations soon began broadcasting live from the scene. As hundreds of volunteers lined up to donate blood, looky-loos in bumper-to-bumper traffic created havoc for rescue crews.

“There were 30,000 [sightseers] at the Pacoima scene,” Police Chief William Parker later told the governor’s law enforcement advisory committee. “Many of them picked up pieces of wreckage as souvenirs too.”

Parker said he wanted to be able to make misdemeanor arrests of “unauthorized persons” at disaster scenes. “There could be difficulties in enforcing such a law,” he acknowledged, “but it would certainly be a psychological deterrent to those attracted to scenes of tragedy.”

Days later, the military jet’s radar operator, Adams, told reporters from a hospital wheelchair that the test pilot “didn’t call out or say anything before the crash.

“I remember feeling heat and a kind of orange-colored fog around me. Then I pulled the lever and blew the canopy, then the seat trigger.”

Adams, who sustained burns on his face, recalled looking up to see burning holes in his parachute. As he drifted toward the ground, he took off his blazing flight helmet and threw it away.

The tragedy “made a big impression” on Bill Frazer, the former student. “I watched a bloodied kid lifted onto a mattress and decided then I was going out to learn first aid,” he said in the recent interview.

For more than three decades, Frazer has worked as an instructor with disaster services for the Red Cross, teaching first aid all over the country. The more people who know first aid, he said, the better.