[TIMELINE] 01/31/57 - Fiery Crash Affected Richie Valens (Roy Nakazawa died)
- The day fiery disaster fell from the sky
Fifty years ago, a fighter jet and a transport plane collided over a
Pacoima school, killing eight and injuring dozens.
By Cecilia Rasmussen, 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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Date / Time: Thursday, January 31, 1957 / 11:18 a.m.
Operator / Flight No.: Douglas Aircraft Company / Non-Commercial Test
Location: Near Sunland, Calif.
Details and Probable Cause: Midair collision. A crew of four was
aboard the four-engine Douglas DC-7B aircraft (N8210H) as it departed
Santa Monica Municipal Airport at 10:15 a.m. on the first functional
test flight of the brand-new airliner prior to its eventual delivery
to Continental Airlines.
Co-pilot for the routine Douglas Aircraft Co. test flight was veteran
flier Archie R. Twitchell, 50, who enjoyed a secondary career as an
actor between flying stints and appeared in over 100 films, including
Union Pacific, I Wanted Wings, Among the Living, Out of the Past,
Fort Apache, I Shot Billy The Kid and Sunset Boulevard, among many
others. The remaining DC-7B crew consisted of pilot William G.
Carr, 36; flight engineer Waldo B. Adams, 42; and radio operator Roy
T. Nakazawa, 28.
That same morning, in Palmdale, a two-man U.S. Air Force Northrop F-
89J Scorpion jet fighter (52-1870A) took off at 10:50 a.m. on a
similar test flight, one that involved a check of its on-board radar
By 11:00 a.m. both aircraft were performing their individual tests at
an altitude of 25,000 feet in clear skies over the San Fernando
Valley when, at about 11:18 a.m., a high-speed, near-head-on midair
collision occurred. Investigators later determined that the two
aircraft converged at a point in the sky approximately one to two
miles northeast of the Hansen Dam spillway.
Following the collision, Curtiss Adams, the radarman aboard the
eastbound twin-engine F-89J Scorpion, was able to bail out of the
stricken fighter jet and, despite incurring serious burns, parachuted
to a landing in Burbank. The fighter jet's pilot, Roland E. Owen,
died when the aircraft plummeted in flames into La Tuna Canyon in the
The last reported message from the fatally crippled westbound DC-7B
airliner was from co-pilot Archie Twitchell, who radioed, "Mid-air
collision! Mid-air collision! Ten-How (the plane's radio
designation) . . . We're going in . . . uncontrollable . . .
uncontrollable . . . Say good-bye to everybody."
With a portion of its left wing sheared off and while raining debris
onto the neighborhoods below, the DC-7B momentarily continued
westbound, then rolled to the left and began a steepening, high-
velocity dive earthward. The aircraft broke up at about 500 to
1,000 feet above the ground and seconds later the hurtling wreckage
slammed into a Pacoima churchyard near the corner of Laurel Canyon
Boulevard and Terra Bella Street, killing all four crew members on
Upon impact, the shattered DC-7B exploded into hundreds of flaming
pieces that slashed across the adjacent playground of Pacoima Junior
High School, where some 220 boys were just ending their outdoor
athletics activities. Ronnie Brann, 13, and Robert Zallan, 12, were
struck and killed by the flying blast of metal and debris from the
crashing airliner. A third gravely injured student, Evan Elsner,
12, died two days later in a local hospital. An estimated 74
additional students on the playground suffered injuries ranging from
minor to critical.
A second F-89 Scorpion jet, being used as a radar "target" by the
first one during the equipment tests, was not involved in the
collision and its two-man crew did not witness the accident.
The collision was blamed on pilot error: Failure of both aircraft
crews to exercise proper "see and avoid" procedures regarding other
aircraft while operating under visual flight rules (VFR).
The catastrophe prompted the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to set
restrictions on all aircraft test flights, both military and
civilian, requiring that they be made over open water or specifically
approved sparsely populated areas.
The Pacoima crash is referenced in the 1987 film La Bamba, a
biographical account of the life of veteran rock 'n' roll singer
Ritchie Valens. Valens was a 15-year-old student at Pacoima Junior
High at the time of the disaster, but was away from the school
campus, attending the funeral of his grandfather, on the day of the
crash. Ironically, Valens, along with fellow musicians Buddy Holly
and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), plus pilot Roger Peterson,
would die just two years later in the crash of their chartered Beech
Bonanza (N3794N) near Mason City, Iowa, in the early morning hours of
February 3, 1959.
Pacoima Junior High School underwent a name change, to Pacoima Middle
School, in 1992.
Fatalities: 8 -- 1 of 2 occupants of the F-89J Scorpion jet; all 4
crew members aboard the DC-7B airliner; and 3 junior high school
students on the ground.