A few minutes after 11:00 AM on January 31, 1957, teacher John Buchanan began recording the graduation ceremony being held for 800 students gathered in the San Fernando Valley’s Pacoima Junior High School auditorium. Approximately ten minutes later in the sky above the nearby San Gabriel Mountains an F-89 jet slammed into a new DC-7, rendering both aircraft uncontrollable.
What Buchanan’s recording ultimately captured that morning was the sound of a tragedy.
Halfway through the recording — immediately after graduation speaker Linda Latrelle says “We have only one life to live…” — the DC-7 can be heard plummeting into the school’s athletic field just a few hundred feet from the auditorium.
Killed in the crash were three Pacoima students, the pilot of the F-89 and the four-man crew of the DC-7, whose final words to traffic control were, “Uncontrollable–we’re spinning over the Valley. Say goodbye to everybody… we’re going in.” The navigator of the F-89 had parachuted safely to the ground immediately after his jet’s near head-on collision with the larger aircraft. However, dozens of students on the Pacoima gym field were injured, many seriously.
The tragedy gained national notoriety when angry Pacoima parents successfully petitioned officials to prohibit future test flights over populated areas. Though the San Fernando Valley was considerably less populated in 1957 than it is today, it was home to hundreds of thousands back then.
In 1987 the crash was spotlighted again in the movie “La Bamba” as the reason Richie Valens, the 50s rock icon and Pacoima favorite son, was afraid to fly. Two years after the Pacoima disaster, Valens was killed along with his fellow performers and tour mates, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly when their light plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa.
The quality of the recording is surprisingly good, considering it was recorded on dad’s ancient Wollensak reel-to-reel and that it sat in our garage for decades. The two-minute recording opens with Latrelle’s speech in progress. One minute into the recording, the faint-but-unmistakable sound of a rapidly descending aircraft crescendos into a roar of crashing airplane, immediately followed by the sounds of confusion and fear in the auditorium. The auditorium doors can be heard slamming open from the concussion of the crash. A school official tries to calm the students by announcing, “It was a jet blast. That’s all there is to it. It’s all over,” implying that the deafening sound they had just heard was a sonic boom (it was actually the plane’s wing exploding just above the ground, spraying hot oil and shrapnel in all directions). Against the sound of 800 frightened students and a distant fire bell, an unintelligible announcement is made on the P.A. when the school’s power goes out and the recording winds to a stop. As far as I know, this is the only recording of the Pacoima crash: Click on following link:
[This recording is the property of Russ Buchanan. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited]
The Pacoima crash was of particular significance to my family for a number of reasons. My father and sister were both on the Pacoima campus when it happened — my dad as a teacher and my sister Pam as a thirteen year-old student (it was her birthday). Needless to say, it was a rough few hours for my mom, who had learned of the crash but had to wait an excruciating two hours before dad called to tell her he and her daughter were OK. I can only imagine mom’s reaction to Pam’s account of the crash. Pam, who had just finished Gym, was in the P.E. office waiting for permission to retrieve the jacket she had forgotten on the athletic field when the DC-7 came down on the field. “I thought we were being bombed so I immediately dropped to the floor and assumed the ‘duck and cover’ position,” remembers Pam.
As a five-year-old kid, all I can recall of that day is seeing what appeared to be shiny bits of tin foil falling from the sky — parts of the DC-7 that had broken off after its crippling mid-air collision.