Derry, PA Helicopter Crashes Into Festival, Sept 1978
LABOR DAY HELICOPTER CRASH TURNS DERRY CHURCH FESTIVAL INTO TRAGEDY.
Derry, Pa. (AP) -- Twelve-year-old MARY BETH ALLISON was laughing as she dropped pingpong balls numbered for prizes from a helicopter to a crowd attending a Labor Day church festival.
Moments later the helicopter plunged into the crowd, leaving seven persons dead, including MISS ALLISON'S mother, and at least 19 others injured.
"Everybody was running for those balls," said DENISE DeCARIO of New Derry, who was mingling in the crowd. "The girl was laughing, Then there was blood everywhere."
Six persons were killed instantly when the craft slammed into a concession stand at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in this southwestern Pennsylvania borough. Coroner Leo Bacha said the seventh person died later at a nearby hospital.
Eyewitnesses said the church parking lot was covered with blood and severed bodies after the three-seat helicopter, a Hughes 269C, crashed to the ground.
"There were people lying all over the place, some with their heads off and arms off," said Helen Irwin, who saw the crash from outside the family tavern a half-block away.
"One man, his body was cut in half. It was just a terrible mess."
Latrobe police Sgt. Joseph Muchinski said about 500 persons were attending the festival on the final day of a three-day annual fund-raiser. It was the first year a helicopter had been used.
Federal Aviation Administration Inspector Dave Kountz said the blade tips of the helicopter were traveling at 350 to 400 mph.
"The pilot indicated the possibility that the engine might have failed She did attempt to land," Kuntz said.
The pilot, Pam Nelson of West Mifflin, and the two passengers, Miss Allison and her father, Leo, a church janitor, were uninjured, authorities said.
Mrs. Nelson is the wife of the owner of Nelson Helicopters, based at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, according to Derry Policeman Ronald Bolen.
Allison's wife, MARY, was one of those struck by the falling helicopter. She died later at Latrobe Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Andrea Guzik, who said 19 persons were taken to the hospital.
Eleven persons remained in the hospital today, including three in critical condition, hospital officials said.
A spokesman at Latrobe Hospital listed the people admitted as follows:
ANDREW PALEK, 59, Wilpen; fractured skull; critical condition.
JANICE PETRUNYAK, 12, Derry; chest fractures; critical condition.
THOMAS BARCHESKY, 13, Derry; severe arm injuries; critical condition.
ANDREW SPILLAR, 68, Latrobe; multiple fractures; critical condition.
ELAINE MALLOY, 28, Derry; broken jaw; fair condition.
ROBERTA PUSKAR, 27, Latrobe; broken ribs; fair condition.
MRS. VINZENZENE MATEO, 62, Derry; broken ribs; fair condition.
IRENE HORRELL, 60, Derry; chipped fractures, cervical sprain, cuts of the scalp and a broken finger; fair condition.
RUTH URDZIK, 60, Derry; fair condition.
RUTH KAZEMCHAK, 57, Derry; shoulder injury; fair condition.
GERALD HAASE, 32, Latrobe; fair condition.
For several hours after the mishap, firemen scoured the area, scooping up body parts and placing them in plastic bags.
The dead were taken to a temporary morgue established in a cafeteria inside St. Joseph's hall, where The Rev. John Wilt, pastor of the church, administered last rites.
Police originally said the helicopter might have struck a utility pole, but there was no confirmation of the report and several eyewitnesses disputed it.
"The helicopter was heading west and reached an area around the corner of the church when either the wind or engine failure caused it to drop," reported Bill Costanzo, managing editor of the Latrobe Bulletin.
Costanzo added, "There was blood all over the parking lot ..... It (the helicopter) fell right into the crowd. One eyewitness said there were bodies flying all over the place. A couple of bodies I saw had to be kids."
Don Johnston, 51, who said he and his 5-year-old son were about 15 feet from the crash site, said, "It never touched a building. There was no explosion, nothing."
"I thought he was going to land, and I thought, 'How can he land in a crowd of people?' He was in trouble and I didn't even know it."
"It just happened so quick. I don't think people had a chance to scream."
Latrobe Hospital, when notified of the accident put its Disaster Code Red into operation and brought out off-duty personnel to handle the injured.
Among the ambulances dispatched to the scene were two vehicles from the Blairsville Station of Citizens Ambulance Service.
The Blairsville Fire Department sent a truck and firemen to the Eastern Derry Township Fire Company firehall at Hillside for standby duty.
It was also reported that the state police had called out off-duty personnel to assist at the scene and in the investigation.
A representative of the National Transportation Safety Board was en route to Derry to probe the cause of the crash.
Citzens band (CB) radio operators were reportedly active on all channels during the emergency to warn motorists to stay away from the disaster site.
Indiana Evening Gazette Pennsylvania 1978-09-05
List of Casualties:
MARY LOU ALLISON, 46, of Derry, a homemaker and mother of three. She was there to watch her husband and daughter drop the ping pong balls from the helicopter at their parish's festival.
TAMMY BARCHESKY, 13, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junior High School and a saxophone player in the school's marching band. She survived 15 days before succumbing to her injuries.
EDWARD "TIM" DEGLAU, 32, of Derry, a husband and father of two young children who worked as a ninth-grade math teacher at Derry Area Junior High. He was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
GERTRUDE GRAY, 54, of Unity. Her husband, Joseph, died seven months earlier.
DARLENE GRAY, 13, of Unity, her daughter. Darlene was a freshman at Greater Latrobe High School.
IRENE MALOY, 53, of Derry, volunteer in a bake sale booth when the helicopter crashed on top of it.
PARECE SMITH, 14, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junion High School who played bells in the school marching band.
LOIS JOY WEIDENHOFF, 51, of Kittanning Township, a wife and mother of one son.