San Juan, TX Plane Crashes In Church, Oct 1970
MAN CRASHES PLANE INTO VALLEY SHRINE.
230 ESCAPE INJURE; LOSS IS $1.5 MILLION.
San Juan (AP) -- A former schoolteacher crashed a small plane into a Roman Catholic church Friday, destroying it and an adjoining cafeteria. Acquaintances said the pilot deliberately smashed into the structure after issuing a strange radio warning.
About 30 priests at Mass in the church and 200 schoolchildren at their noon lunch fled safely from the Church of the Shrine of the Virgin of San Juan and the cafeteria.
Officers identified the pilot as FRANK B. ALEXANDER, about 50, considered an authority in teaching migrant children. He resigned his school job with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school system last spring. ALEXANDER also was a flying instructor.
ALEXANDER'S body was recovered from the destroyed structures. It still was strapped in the pilot's seat when found.
Charles Wardroup in the control tower at Miller International Airport at nearby McAllen said an all-point radio call was received from a pilot identified later as ALEXANDER. The call was on an emergency frequency.
The flier ordered fire departments to evacuate all Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches between Hidalgo and Edinburg and Weslaco and McAllen, all in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Asked the reason for his strange order, the pilot replied: "because of a serious plot."
Moments later the four-place plane smashed into the church and fell at the point where the cafeteria and church proper joined, setting both afire.
The church and the cafeteria were destroyed by the fire, with only steel beams remaining.
The Rev. E. A. Ballard, chancellor of the Bownsville diocese of which the church complex is a part, estimated the loss at $1.5 million. He said the church and cafeteria destruction was total.
The church is part of a complex which also contains St. John's Catholic School and a retreat house.
The school is across a street at the rear of the church but the children eat in the cafeteria which forms a wing of the church. The retreat house is also across a street and a parking lot.
The Shrine of the Virgin of San Juan is famous to Roman Catholics in Northern Mexico and in Texas. The Virgin of San Juan is venerated in a centuries-old Mexican belief.
The white church, of stone and brick, was about the height of a two-story building. The steeple towered four or five stories high. It could contain about 800 worshippers.
"We first heard an explosion and we all rushed out," said Rev. Ronald Anderson, vice chancellor of the diocese.
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