READY TO ROLL

READY TO ROLL

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

FLIGHT 537




Site of the crash

Mr. Harold Leroy (above) was among the Arlington firemen who responded to the crash

In 1949, an Eastern Airlines DC-4 passenger liner plunged into the Potomac River just south of National Airport after a mid-air collision with a military aircraft.

***

Glen Tigner, 21, an air traffic controller on duty at the National Airport Tower on Nov. 1, 1949, sounded the crash alarm. ``Turn left! Turn left!’’ Tigner had radioed moments earlier as a Bolivian Air Force fighter on a practice run veered toward a commercial flight on approach to the airport from the south.

Eastern Airlines Flight 537, which originated in Boston and made a stopover in New York, carried 55 passengers and crew. The Bolivian aircraft, a single-seat P-38 Lockheed Lightning, had just been purchased from the U.S. government. Flight 537’s final destination was supposed to be New Orleans. It never made in beyond Alexandria. At 1156 hours, the fighter slammed into the Douglas DC-4. The tail of the commercial airliner just missed the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, near Four Mile Run.

Everyone aboard Flight 537 died. The pilot of the Bolivian aircraft, Capt. Eric Rios Bridaux, 28, was seriously injured - but survived.

At the time, it was considered the nation's deadliest civilian aircraft accident. CLICK HERE for Flight 537 investigation report. 

Among the dead: 
U.S. Representatives George Bates of Massachusetts, Michael Kennedy of New York and Helen Hokinson, a cartoonist for New Yorker magazine.


"The DC-4 pilot swerved the big ship from its path, but too late," according to a dispatch in the Nov. 2, 1949 edition of The St. Joseph (Michigan) Herald-Press newspaper. "The fighter ripped into it from above and from the side. The airliner split in half. Bodies and wreckage fell into the water and along the bank of the Potomac."

Retired Arlington firefighter Frank Higgins recalled the grisly recovery, with fire and ambulance crews removing victims from the river. Some were still strapped in their seats. Many were severely disfigured. ``Legs, a headless body,'' Higgins said, describing the gruesome inventory.

Others related similar stories. Firefighters also gathered personal effects from the knee-deep water and muck. ``The river was very shallow there,’’ said Harold LeRoy, a veteran Arlington volunteer firefighter.

A quarter mile away, a crash boat from Bolling Air Force Base rescued the fighter pilot. ``The Bolivian ambassador, after visiting Captain Rios in the hospital, said the pilot told him he had been occupied with engine difficulties and apparently did not hear the final warning from the control tower,’’ according to The New York Times.

Newspaper and wire service photos of the crash scene showed the shattered rear of the DC-4 resting on the Virginia shoreline, firefighters removing a victim’s body from the shallow water on a stretcher and an airline pilot carrying a child’s doll recovered from the river.

J. Donald Mayor, a sales manager for Custom Upholstering Co, was driving on the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway and witnessed the collision. The Falls Church resident stopped his car and waded into the river before firefighters arrived.

``I ripped off my coat jacket and took off my shoes,’’ Mayor told The Washington Post. ``I saw a few fellows just standing there and I shouted `What’s the matter? You cowards?’ Two ran along with me. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I rolled up my sleeves.’’

Mayor and the others spotted a woman floating face down in the oily water. They dragged her ashore. She was bleeding from the mouth and mortally wounded. By that time, firefighters arrived and blanketed the wreckage with foam.

``Then I saw them open rescue holes in the plane with special equipment they had,’’ Mayor said. ``Rescue workers got a woman’s body out of the wreckage first. She was about 70 at least, with gray hair and wrinkled skin, very heavy set. Looked like her nose had been ripped off. Then they brought out a young man, about 30 or so. He was in an Army jacket, I think. Next they got a heavy man.’’

Soaked and shivering, Mayor got in his car and headed home to his family in Falls Church. ``I saw I couldn’t do any more,’’ he said.

The Associated Press reported:

"When darkness came last night, more than a score of bodies had not been recovered. Police figured that all of those yet missing were in the river. As the night went on, a few more bodies were recovered but the progress was slow.

"It was an eerie scene. Sticking out from a clump of small trees at the river's edge was the tail and fuselage of the big airliner. Its wings were shorn off, the four engines gone.

"Big floodlights played on the inky river from atop fire department trucks. Another searchlight had been set up on the bank. 
Off to one side a corps of Red Cross women served coffee and sandwiches to the tired battalions hunting for the dead.
"Occasionally one of the boats would break away from the other little craft about 100 feet off shore. Quietly the word went around and men carrying a stretcher would go down to the water. Then in a few minutes an ambulance, siren wailing softly, would move off toward the city."
Sadly, the scene was repeated a month later. On Dec. 12, 1949, Capital Airlines Flight 500 crashed in the Potomac River. CLICK HERE for Flight 500 accident report. Of the 23 people aboard, six perished the DC-3 "wandered off a radar path leading into fog-bound National Airport," the Associated Press reported.

Eastern Airlines Flight 537 Passengers


Rep. GEORGE J. BATES (R-Mass.), 58, Salem, Mass.

MICHAEL J. KENNEDY, 52, New York City.
MISS HELEN HOKINSON, New York City.
GARDNER W. TAYLOR, Bronxville, N. Y.
DR. FRANCIS E. RANDALL, 35, Lawrence, Mass.
LAWRENCE P. GLASSNER, 42, Jamaica, N. Y.
RAYMOND DEAN, 33, Yonkers, N. Y.
M. L. DANIEL,  New Boston, N. H.

LOUIS ISGUR, Brookline, Mass.
MR. AND MRS. FRED E. McCUSTY and daughter MAUREENE, 18-months-old, Brighton, Mass.
MRS. M. A. PERKINS, Cairo, Ga.
MRS. SAM (SHIRLEY) WILLIAMSON, Blaine, Me.
WHITNEY E. BAKER, Plainfield, N. J.
W. J. CASEY, Brooklyn, N. Y.
MRS. CHARLES (BETTY) CHASE, 26, and CARTER CARRINGTON CHASE, 9-months-old, Wiscasset, Me.
MISS G. COSTA, Rio Padres, Puerto Rico.
MISS MARY DONOVAN, Brooklyn, N. Y.
E. FAIR (or FAIRE), no address.
ROBERT M. FIELD, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N. Y.
SCRIBNER FITZHUGH, Lake Forest, Ill.
MISS THELMA FOSTER, Missoula, Mont.
NOAH GALLOP, Jamaica, N. Y.
FRED HARTMAN, Amityville, N. Y.
HOWARD C. HAUPT, Garden City, N. Y.
RALPH HORTON, N. Y.
MRS. S. KENT, no address.
ROBERT LYNAK, Ridgewood, N. H.
MISS O. MARTINEZ, Rio Padres, Puerto Rico.
TED MAGEE, Oklahoma City.
MR. AND MRS. RALPH F. MILLER, Chevy Chase, Md.
L. B. MOSS, White Plains, N. Y.
LAWRENCE OCLECK, New York City.
MR. AND MRS. PAUL N. PECK, Richmond, Va.
THEODORE RICHIE, New York City.
L. SAXE, no address.
RALPH B. SHAW, Bayside, N. Y.
PHILIP SILVERMAN, New York City.
HAROLD V. SMITH, Saratoga Springs, N. Y.
WILLIAM SMYTHE, Roslyn Estates, N. Y.
FRANK E. SPAULING, White Plains, N. Y.
HAROLD W. ST. CLAIRE, New York City.
MISS BETSY THORUP, Wellesley Hills, Mass. Senior at Duke University.
MRS. ISABELLE VELOUTINI, Caracas, Venezuela.
JULES VOGEL, New York City.
FRANCIS M. WELD, New York City.
J. D. WICKS, Gastonia, N. C.
Crew
Pilot Capt. GEORGE RAY, Mt. Kimball Lake, N. J.
Co-pilot CHARLES R. HAZELWOOD, Roselle, N. J.
Hostess MISS HELEN GILBERT, Brooklyn.
Purser OSCAR ORIHUELA, New York
City.