Fast Action By Airport Crew Saves 36 In Rochester Crash
Based on information supplied by Crash Crew Chief Francis Flagg
Photos courtesy Rochester Times-Union
FAST, skillful and courageous action by members of the Rochester, N. Y., Airport Crash Unit saved 36 lives on July 2, when a Martin 404 operated by Mohawk Airlines crashed into a field of mud adjacent to the main runway, split in half, and burned.
Oddly enough, events began for the fire fighters at 4:44 p.m. when a bolt of lightning, knifing through the rain and hail that pelted the field, shorted the fire alarm system and had the crash crew rolling on a mechanical false alarm seconds later. Ordered back to the station, the eight-man crew were still in their gear when a “hot line” call from the tower notified them that a plane had crashed about 150 feet south of the main runway near its western end.
This came at 4:49 p.m. and by 4:51 the crew was on the scene with a 1,500-gallon turret foam track, a 1000gallon foam truck and a 1000-pound dry chemical unit. The plane had crashed left-wing-down, crushed the pilots cabin and the forward fuselage, and then broken in two with the pieces coming to rest at right angles to each other. Six of the 12 passengers who had either been thrown clear or walked from the wreckage were wandering around in a daze, their figures casting eerie shadows in the glare of the flames. The other six lay on the ground.
Supervising Fireman Francis YV. Flagg who arrived just behind the apparatus stated that “it was a ball of fire when we got there. We sprayed everything in sight, including some of the passengers whose clothing was afire.”
Specifically, the turret truck, operated by Robert Clark, nosed into the angle formed by the broken pieces and covered the wing, fuselage and ground area with foam. Operating foam and dry chemical hand lines, Fire Fighters James Locus and Richard Ziegler knocked down small flames around the fuselage. Ziegler, whose regular duties are airport mechanic, then entered the fuselage and began handing out the injured to crash crew members, Frank Rossney, Gordon Stopplebein, Anthony Nuceie and Francis Flagg. To get at one passenger Ziegler had to remove his mask and tear away framing of the plane that had pinned the unfortunate man. Rescued and rescuer got out of the plane alive, but both wound up in a hospital. While this action occurred James Locus and LaVerne DePaul mopped up the remaining fire.
Events moved so quickly that at 4:52 p.m., just three minutes after the fire fighters had received the initial alarm, seven of the passengers were on the way to a hospital in two station wagons and a pick-up truck. By 4:59 the 36 living passengers had been removed and the fires were out.
However, Flagg had a few nervous moments when he realized that his units were all out of foam and there were still hundreds of gallons of gasoline on the ground. Happily the situation was relieved minutes later when units of the Rochester City Fire Department arrived followed by the Gates-Chili volunteers with a full tanker. In all, 20 units from Rochester, Gates-Chili and the Chili fire departments responded to the scene, some of whom set up a 4,000-foot relay from the nearest hydrant on the field.
All that remained was the overhaul of the broken plane and the grim search for bodies of the seven remaining passengers. This was complicated by the speedy removal of the injured to hospitals before a complete passenger-check was made. At 5:20 p.m. the operation was completed.