Mark­ing O. C.’ s dead­li­est air crash

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SCOTT HAR­RI­SON scott. har­ri­son @ latimes. com Times staff writ­ers An­gel Jen­nings and Shelby Grad con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The dead­li­est air dis­as­ter in Or­ange County history oc­curred 50 years ago this month.

In the early morn­ing of June 25, 1965, an Air Force C- 135 Stra­to­lifter with 72 Marines and 12 crew mem­bers took off from El Toro Marine Corps Air Sta­tion and crashed into a nearby moun­tain.

Here’s a ret­ro­spec­tive from The Times’ re­port­ing:

Death was in­stan­ta­neous for all aboard as the huge jet dis­in­te­grated in f lames on a grass- cov­ered hill­side a mile wide.

A Marine spokesman said the air­craft should have climbed more rapidly af­ter tak­ing off from the 380- footel­e­va­tion run­way and also banked to the left to­ward the ocean.

Of­fi­cials said the air­port tower lost con­tact with the plane im­me­di­ately af­ter giv­ing clear­ance for take­off at 1: 45 a. m. and then lost radar con­tact.

On the plane were 70 en­listed men from the 2nd Re­place­ment Com­pany, Stag­ing Bat­tal­ion, Camp Pendle­ton, who were be­ing trans­ferred to the 3rd Marine Di­vi­sion at Ok­i­nawa. Un­der nor­mal re­place­ment pro­ce­dures, the 70 had been re­cruited from all over the coun­try.

Some mem­bers of the 3rd Marine Di­vi­sion were fight­ing in Viet­nam.

Two other Marines were “hitch­hik­ing” a ride, Camp Pendle­ton re­ported.

It took more than four hours to find the crash site be­cause fog and driz­zle ob­scured the moun­tains.

At 6 a. m., Chief War­rant Of­fi­cer John W. An­dre, 46, and a four- man crew spot­ted the crashed plane from a he­li­copter on the fourth search f light of the early morn­ing.

“At first I thought there were sur­vivors shin­ing f lash­lights at us,” An­dre said.

“Then we got closer and saw they were lit­tle grass fires.”

An­dre ma­neu­vered low enough to drop off a med­i­cal of­fi­cer, Navy Lt. L. B. Frenger, and a crew­man, Sgt. Bill Hast­ings.

“As soon as we looked,” Hast­ings said, “we could tell there was no one left.

“Even rab­bits were dead.”

By late af­ter­noon, all 84 bod­ies had been re­moved or lo­cated in hard- to- reach ar­eas. The Or­ange County coro­ner’s staff had iden­ti­fied many through dog tags and fin­ger­prints and were try­ing to iden­tify oth­ers.

At Camp Pendle­ton, 20 miles to the south, 1,400 men from the re­place­ment com­pany were as­signed to call their next of kin from a mo­bile tele­phone trailer to re­port that they weren’t aboard the ill- fated plane.

The crash was de­bated fre­quently dur­ing the long bat­tle over whether to turn El Toro, which was closed by the Pen­tagon in the 1990s, into a civil­ian air­port.

Air­port foes ar­gued that the crash showed it was un­safe for com­mer­cial jets.

In 2000, air­port crit­ics aired a ca­ble tele­vi­sion spot with footage of the crash.

Some for­mer El Toro com­man­ders slammed the ad, not­ing the crash was caused by pi­lot er­ror and not, as the ad sug­gests, by an un­safe north­ern run­way. They ac­cused the anti-air­port forces of “cap­i­tal­iz­ing on pain and hu­man suf­fer­ing just to make a po­lit­i­cal point.”

The spot shows body bags be­ing hauled into a he­li­copter af­ter what re­mains the county’s worst avi­a­tion dis­as­ter.

The ad’s cre­ators ar­gued it was a public ser­vice be­cause it showed the dan­ger of turn­ing El Toro into an air­port, a plan that was even­tu­ally scrapped.

On Satur­day, of­fi­cials gath­ered to re­mem­ber those who died in 1965.

Ea­gle Scout Jor­dan Fourcher, 15, cre­ated an in­ter­ac­tive me­mo­rial kiosk at a park at the old base. It fea­tures a me­tal base en­graved with the names of the vic­tims and an in­ter­ac­tive touch screen with bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about the men.

John Malmin Los An­ge­les Times

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