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Derry, PA Helicopter Crashes Into Festival, Sept 1978


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.


I will ask

I can see that there is a lot of anger here and no closure. As I have lost a child myself, I understand that feeling very well. If you want me to give her a message, I will. I don't check this site often (not since my last post), but I'll check it again if you want to leave a reply.

remembering darlene

Darlene was my friend. She sat next to me in school. So sad.

So you know the pilot? Did

So you know the pilot? Did you know that she stood outside the Courtroom Laughing While Talking to Her Attorney as well as jesting with others while my family stood by weeping? This was a few years after the tragedy. I never blamed her per se, however she and her husband neglected to correct the problem that they had known about for quite sometime. You may know her however you don't know the details. I am sure she would never do something like that to hurt others.. really I am sure. However the faulty part the had been found faulty before and never fixed properly brought this situation on. She is left with NO void in her heart. Did you ever realize that nice caring mother you report her to be, she never reached out to us with any compassion, sympathy, or apologies for out loss?

Ask her about that when you see her next time.

Irene Horrell was my great

Irene Horrell was my great grandmother. My father and uncle had been at the festival with her that day and i remember her telling me about them lifting the tail end of the helicopter up to help free herself and others that were trapped under it. She was very lucky to survive the event.

I am so sorry for the

I am so sorry for the horrific memories and pain of everyone involved with this accident. I know the helicopter pilot and please believe me when I tell you she would have done everything in her power to avoid that crash. She's a mother herself and would never have hurt anyone on purpose. She still can't talk about it, but she remembers. She remembers everything.

Derry 1978 Chopper crash

You are correct as to what you wrote. The people do not speak about it and those who admit to remembering about it shy away from the topic shortly thereafter they acknowledge it.

I am a family member of one of the fatalities hence I will affirm that those involved do NOT speak about it moreover they don't speak to each other. I am often bewildered by the fact that some of my once close friends who were victims themselves do not keep in touch and when I see them face to face, there is an awkward moment that necessitates departure from one another.

When this occurred, Derry was a very nice little town and the people all knew one another in some way shape or form. This tragedy was an unthinkable occurrence that has left the town stunned and those who remain there are in a state of denial when asked. There are NO plaques or memorials placed at the site and the people of the town are against it. So, it is strange and being 11 myself when this occurred I no what you speak of however I was there. I knew it was going to occur because the night before we were to be there, I thought about it all night. I saw news paper headlines that spoke of it, I heard questions in my head such as "what if this thing would crash into the crowd?" "what if one of your family members was killed?" "what if someone close to you would die?" Then I saw a vision of a casket which was closed. It was white with bronze handles. I kept telling myself that only happens to people you read about. Nothing like that happens in a small town like Derry. That can't happen to us. That Monday, I was sick in my stomach and did not want to go. Yet I told myself it was nerves from wanting to catch the ping pong balls and get the prizes. When we parked our car, we walked to the church, my knees where shaking and I was trembling, yet I told no one. The chopper passed over me where I was standing and I remember how low it was and the noise it made when it snapped up a piece of paper near me. Two passes later it went down. I was one of the few people who were not frozen in shock. Days later, when I went to the funeral home, the first thing I saw was a white casket with bronze handles and it was closed. All my thoughts came to pass.

What do you want to know? Perhaps I can gets some closure myself by helping you.

1978 St Josephs crash

The town and the people who were there have never fully recovered. Oddly enough, the victims families don't speak to one another unless it's impossible to avoid one another. One would think there would be a kinship amongst the families however
there is nothing but estrangement.

After 35 years, the pain, the emptiness, and emotion is as alive as ever.

It is interesting to me that

It is interesting to me that this story was only posted recently and the comment above even more recent. I moved to Derry at a very young age only a couple of years after this. I went to St. Joe's school for K-6. The comment above, about the town having PTSD, and the whole thing being blocked out, is so true. I heard a couple of short mentions during my many years in Derry, and knew that _something_ had happened, but somehow knew never to ask any details.

Probably 15 years later, the church started having a festival again. I always thought it was a nice event, but an indescribable gloom hovered over all of the established members of the church. Know I know so much more, and to be honest, I can only weep. I knew it had to have been a tragic event, but I never knew there were severed bodies in that parking lot, in that cafeteria, that half the people in that small town witnessed up-close details... It is a tiny little town. And in my memory, a proud but broken church.

There were never any memorials. The topic was only spoken of most rarely in the quietest of voices, and even myself at 6 years old, 10 years old, knew to never mention it or ask any questions. I finally looked this up, after all these years. A whole flood of pain has swept over me, realizing what that church, that I was a member of for so many years, went though that day. It explains so much to me, and yet, there's no explanation a human heart can understand about this, or what made those members of that church "the way they just were," in the decades after. It has been a long time since I have been there, and I'm in no rush to return. May peace and wisdom bless you all.

1978 Helicopter Crash in Derry, PA

Thank you for printing this article.

I was 10 yrs old when this happened and I was 1/2 a block away, heading to the fair. I was supposed to meet up w/my friend and her mother, Darlene and Gertrude Gray (2 of the casualty's). I have never had any closure w/this horrific event from my childhood. I remember being at home that evening waiting to hear from Darlene. Waiting to hear that she was all right. When we got the news about her & her mother, we were told that they had to be identified by birthmarks. That's a hell of a childhood memory.

No one has/would ever talk about it since...not my parents, teachers in school, etc. Any time I have tried to find something on line, and I must admit, I haven't looked in quite a few years and pretty much gave up in frustration, I could never find anything but the rambings of people living in Derry now who talk about the town having PTSD and don't acknowledge the crash ever occurred.

The people who died in this accident were forgotten about.

It's not much, but thank you for taking the time to write this article.

article | by Dr. Radut