Fire Buffs promote the general welfare of the fire and rescue service and protect its heritage and history. Famous Fire Buffs through the years include New York Fire Surgeon Harry Archer, Boston Pops Conductor Arthur Fiedler, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and - legend has it - President George Washington.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Site of the crash

Mr. Harold Leroy (above) and Frank Higgins (below) were among the Arlington firefighters who responded to the Eastern Airlines crash

On Nov. 1, 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.

It would be the second major disaster of the day for Washington area fire departments.

Glen Tigner, 21, an air traffic controller on duty at the National Airport Tower, 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. 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.] 

Downtown Explosion

Earlier in the day, a
 series of explosions heralded a fire on the top floors of the New Post Office Department building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Twenty people were injured, including eight firefighters. The first alarm for was transmitted at 0958. A second alarm followed at 1012, and a third alarm was sounded at 1031.

In all, twelve engines, four ladders, a water tower and tender, two squads and six ambulances answered the series of alarms. D.C. Fire Chief Joseph Mayhew and three battalion chiefs directed the operation.

Aaron Trail, the building superintendent, was trapped in a room with barred windows on the eighth floor. A truck company extended an aerial ladder as far as it would go and then – in a rare and dramatic operation – two firefighters used a scaling ladder to reach the barred window and pass breathing apparatus to Trail.

Another crew of firefighters reached Trail from the inside and escorted him to safety. He was treated at Emergency Hospital for minor injuries.

Among the most seriously injured firefighters at the postal blaze was D.C. Fire Sergeant Joseph Mattare of Engine 13. Mattare was admitted to Emergency Hospital for smoke inhalation and a shoulder injury. The Washington Post published a photograph of the fire department physician, in full running gear, resuscitating the fallen firefighter. After recovering from his injuries, Mattare went on to serve as fire chief.


Crash Dispatch Log

From the magazine Fire Engineering:

11:45 A.M., Alexandria, Va., Fire Department Rescue 1, Ambulances 1 and 2, with Chief Bernard Padgett, respond to reported scene of crash. Alarm received via Alexandria Police Radio Scout car.

11:48 A.M., Washington National Airport Fire Department responded with the following: No. 155 crash truck, 1000 gal. tank with H.P. fog and foam; No. 125 Hardie crash truck, 300 gal. tank, H.P.; 1-500 GPM American LaFrance pumper; 1 Jeep, 250 Lb. Ansul Powder: C12 Ambulance and Chief Charles F. Petellat. Alarm via National Airport Control Tower.
11:48 A.M., M.A.T.S. Army Airport Fire Department responded with the following: No. 155 Crash Truck, 1000 gal. tank, H.P.; 1-750 GPM Pumper (make not given) with Chief Raymond Peake.
11:50 A.M. Alexandria, Va., Fire Department Engine 4 [called via Alexandria Police].
11:50 A.M. Penn Daw, Va., Fire Department Ambulance 1.
11:50 A.M. Franconia, Va., Fire Department, Ambulance 1.
11:50 A.M., District of Columbia Fire Department, Chief Engineer Joseph A. Mayhew and DCFD Fireboat [called via Airport Control Tower].
11:59 A.M. Arlington, Va., Fire Department, Rescue 5, Ambulance 4, Engines 4 and 5 (two pumpers) under Chief A. C. Scheffel.
12:00 A.M., Prince Georges County, Md., sent the following:
Bladensburg, Md., Ambulance 1 and 2;
Branchville, Ambulance 1;
Glenn Dale, Ambulance 1;
District Heights, Ambulance 1;
Oxen Hill, Ambulance 1.
12:01 P.M. Montgomery County, Md. sent the following:
Silver Spring, Rescue 5;
Takoma Park, Ambulance 14;
Kensington, Ambulance 20;
Glen Echo, Ambulance 53;
Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Rescue 3, Ambulances 1 and 2;
Chevy Chase Fire Department, Engine 60.
Gaithersburg Ambulance 41 transferred to Chevy Chase F. D. Hq.
Alarms to Prince Georges Control Center, Hyattsville, Md., and Montgomery County Fire Board, Silver Spring, Md. Request of District of Columbia Fire Alarm Hq. for all available rescue squads and ambulances.
12:06 P.M., District of Columbia Fire Department Rescue land Ambulance 1. A total of 43 pieces of equipment, as follows: 5 Rescue squads, 21 ambulances, 11 pieces of fire apparatus, 1 fireboat, 5 fire chiefs’ cars


Eastern Airlines Flight 537 Passengers

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

MICHAEL J. KENNEDY, 52, 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.
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.
E. FAIR (or FAIRE), no address.
ROBERT M. FIELD, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N. Y.
NOAH GALLOP, Jamaica, N. Y.
FRED HARTMAN, Amityville, N. Y.
HOWARD C. HAUPT, Garden City, 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.
MR. AND MRS. PAUL N. PECK, Richmond, Va.
L. SAXE, no address.
RALPH B. SHAW, Bayside, N. Y.
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.
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.