61 Years Ago Today: Fatal Plane Crash At Sea-Tac Airport
61 years ago today – Nov. 30, 1947, at around 2:25pm – an Alaska Airlines airplane with 25 passengers and three crewmembers on board crashed while trying to land at Sea-Tac Airport, killing nine and injuring 17.
One of the dead was Stella Pearl Jones, 44, a blind passenger in a car struck by the airplane on Des Moines Road (now Des Moines Memorial Way) near 180th:
Another victim was Mrs. Virginia Stitsworth, 33, an entertainer whose stagename was “Virginia Grafton” (her field of entertainment is unknown).
Most people who remember this tragic incident have either passed away, or perhaps their memories have faded. However, that does not diminish the impact of such a terrible crash that took the lives of nine, which, if it happened today, would surely be a major news event.
The doomed flight had many problems en route to Sea-Tac, including two days’ delay in Alaska for bad weather and mechanical problems. Once in Seattle, heavy fog obscured the landing strips at both Paine and Boeing Fields. The unsuccessful landing at Sea-Tac was the third attempt to land under poor visibility, and one can’t help but imagine the potential worry its passengers may have been going through at the time.
The four-engine Alaska Airlines craft, a Douglas C 54-A, descended from the northeast, then (according to some reports) touched down 2,748 feet beyond the approach area to Runway 20. It then careened over an embankment onto Des Moines Road, where it collided with an automobile, killing a female passenger. It then burst into flames as passengers tried to escape.
Six persons were dead at the scene and three more died in the hospital. The victims included:
- Virginia Stitsworth, 33, aka Virginia Grafton, Seattle
- Jonas E. Johnson, 44, Palmer, Alaska
- Gordon Johnson, 21 months, Palmer, Alaska
- Stella Pearl Jones, 44, Seattle, passenger in an automobile struck by the airliner
- Leslie Howe, 33, Spokane
- Fred Smith, 20, Tacoma
- Olie Raing, Anchorage
- Reba Monk, 22, Stewardess, Seattle; Monk was burned while leading passengers to safety through the flames
An investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board found that the pilot approached the runway too high and was not correctly lined up for proper landing.
The pilot, who survived, was assessed a penalty of $1,000 for violations of Civil Air Regulations.
Here’s text taken directly from the archives of the Daily Sitka Sentinel Alaska, dated Dec. 1, 1947:
ALASKA PLANE CRASHES AT SEATTLE.
BRAKES FAIL CAUSING PLANE TO JUMP BANK.
Seattle (AP) — The pilot of a four engined Alaska Airlines transport plane which crashed and burned at the Seattle-Tacoma airport blamed the crash today on failure of the hydraulic brake to “take the slightest hold.”
Eight passengers died and three others were critically injured as a result of the accident late yesterday.
The pilot Capt. JAMES E. FERRIS, 37, of Seattle, told the Seattle Times that the DC-4 plane landed at a speed of approximately 100 miles an hour, rolled like “it was on a bed of ball bearings” until it leaped a 60 foot embankment at the end of the airport runway. It crashed into an automobile on the highway below, killing a blind woman in the car.
The plane was flying from Anchorage to Seattle. It had 28 persons aboard, 25 passengers and a crew of three.
Three passengers were reported in critical condition at the New Renton hospital and two were listed as unsatisfactory at Harborview County hospital.
The others had been released after treatment or were recovering from minor burns and bruises in the hospital.
Twenty-six of the 28 aboard the big plane scrambled from door and emergency exits or were pulled from the flames by rescuers. All, however, were seared by the gasoline fed flames that flashed through the fuselage. Four of the rescued died later.
The latest casualty was the plane’s stewardess, MISS REBA MONK, of Santa Monica, Calif., who was credited by survivors with having led many of the passengers to safety.
The other dead are:
- MRS. VIRGINIA STITSWORTH, 33, Tacoma, entertainer known professionally as VIRGINIA GRAFATON.
- GORDON JOHNSON, 21-month-old son of MR. and MRS. J. E. JOHNSON, of Palmer, Alaska.
- The list of dead climbed to eight when 44 year old JONAS E. JOHNSON, of Palmer, died of burns. His 21-month-old son, GORDON, died in the plane wreckage yesterday. MRS. JOHNSON was released from a hospital after treatment for burns.
- MRS. PEARL STELLA JONES, 43, Seattle, blind woman trapped in the car which the big transport smashed as it careened off the field onto the intersection of the Des Moines highway and 158th St.
- LESLIE HOWE, listed of Seattle and Spakane, died in hospital.
- OLE RIUG, Anchorage, died in hospital.
- REBA MONK, Santa Monica, died in hospital.
- FRED SMITH, Tacoma, died in hospital.
The injured crew members:
- Capt. JAMES E. FARRIS, Seattle, the pilot; formerly a Matson line pilot, San Francisco; injuries not serious.
RICHARD F. WHITTING, co-pilot Anchorage; fractured arm, burns, possible internal injuries.
The passengers injured:
- ANE PLEYM, Los Angeles.
- MRS. LESLIE HOWE.
- WILLIAM RANDALL, Nenane, (also listed as OLIVER RINDAHL); critical.
- MARY B. KELLY, Seattle; condition unsatisfactory with neck and back injuries.
- JOHN A. LATHANAN, JR., Fairbanks; critical.
- MRS. LATHANAN, treated and released.
- MRS. J. K. (CHRISTINE) TRASS, Seattle.
- H. M. KOCH, Snohomish, Wash.
- MRS. FLORA HUNTER, Anchorage.
- RICHARD JONES, Palmer.
- MRS. SELMA OLSEN, Anchorage.
- MR. and MRS. ROWLANA SMITH, Terrabonne, Ore., MRS. SMITH, an expectant mother, hospitalized, her husband treated and released.
- EUGENE MARTIN, Seattle.
- ZENA LOUISE FELTRIN, Anchorage.
- LES M. GREENING, Anchorage and Seattle.
- MR. and MRS. RALPH TRACY, McGrath.
- MRS. J. E. JOHNSON, Palmer.
Ten others of the plane’s passengers and crew were in critical condition at Seattle and Renton hospitals. Several were not expected to live.
Bodies of two of the dead were not recovered until nearly four hours after the crash because of the intense heat emiting from the wreckage.
The plane, a DC-4, crashed only a few minutes after it had been turned back from an attempted landing at Seattle’s Boeing field by fog. Two airport employes in the control tower at the Seattle-Tacoma field said the ceiling radioed to pilot JAMES EVAN FERRIS, Seattle, as the plane settled through the overcast was 600 feet with a quarter mile visibility. Three minutes after the crash a special reading showed the ceiling at “400 feet with three-quarters of a mile visibility.”
HAROLD K. PHILIPS, chief of the maintenance division for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, sped to the scene for official inquiry and said:
“Apparently the pilot ground hopped when he saw he was going off the runway.”
MRS. JONES, a widow and mother of a 9-year-old boy, was riding with a neighbor, IRA VON VOLKENBURG when the plane came plunging down a steep bank and swept the car across the road. VON VOLKENBURG said he escaped by kicking out a window and then groped in the smashed car without finding MRS. JONES. He was driven away seconds later as the plane burst into flames and then was wrecked by an explosion.
Eye-witnesses said the plane had made an apparently safe landing when it suddenly turned and went broadside over the bank at the end of the runway.
An outboard engine struck the bank as the plane sagged and watchers at the control tower said it “popped into flames.” Then it again as it flattened VON VOLKENBURG’S automobile and finally was sheathed in flame as the fuel tanks exploded.
The liner had been dogged by bad weather since it took off from Anchorage last Thursday. During its flight from Alaska it was delayed at Yakutat and Annette Island, near Ketchikan. It had taken from Annette at 9:30 a.m. yesterday.
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SOURCES FOR THIS STORY/PHOTOS: