DC3 Aircraft Crash Site in Los Gatos Canyon

Coalinga Record, January 29, 1948

32 Killed in Los Gatos Airline Disaster Yesterday

100 See Men Leap to Death as Plane Plunges into Canyon

Peaceful Los Gatos Canyon was the scene of on of the worst disasters in commercial aviation history yesterday morning.

Thirty-two persons dropped to sudden death in the rock bed of Los Gatos creek about 21 miles northwest of Coalinga and a mile east of the Fresno County Road Camp, when the left wing of an Air Transport Carries plane in which they were flying ripped away and sent the broken wreckage of the DC-3C transport hurtling to the ground.

Broken and charred bodies and an indiscernible heap of debris were all that was left of a government chartered flight from Oakland which world have taken 28 Mexican Nationals back to their homeland.

Members of the crew were Pilot Frank Atkinson 30, of Long Beach, First Officer Marion Ewing, 32, of Balboa, Stewardess Bobbie Atkinson, wife of the pilot, Frank Chaffin, 63 of Berkley, a Security Officer of the U.S. Immigration Service, near retirement age, was the thirty-second occupant of the ship.

Among the bodies of the Mexican Nationals, most of whom were being deported after having completed their agricultural contracts with California farmers was a woman with baby clothes beside here. No trace of a baby's body was found, however.

Eye Witnesses

About one hundred persons say the transport in trouble flying southeast over the Road Camp at about 5000 feet. Superintendent Melvin Wilmirth, and Foreman Frank Johnson, George Woodard and Peter Dermer said they and over ninety prisoners of the camp saw the wing separate and the transport spiral to the ground. Wilmirth said the crash occurred at about 9:50 a.m.

W.L. Childers, who lives on the O.D. Gaston ranch a half mile from the scene, told the Record reporter that he witnessed the tragedy from the start.

"The plane was headed east about a mile high. I was watching it when I noticed a streak of smoke trailing off from the left motor.

"The left wing then separated from the body of the plane, and the fuselage and right wing began to spiral down toward the earth.

"As I watched I could see bodies separating from the wreckage as they either jumped or were thrown clear.

"The occupants of the plan also seemed to be throwing pieces of luggage out of the ship as it hurtled down.

"The broken left wing came down in the yard of my house, about a half mile from the main wreckage.

"I began running at once to get to the main wreckage and to help anybody who might be alive.

"I encountered four badly mangled bodies before reaching the debris which was burning fiercely.

"A glance at the bodies showed there would be nobody for whom I could do anything.

Prisoners Fight Fire

The Road Camp foreman and prisoners arrived soon after Childers and put the fire under control with extinguishers and shoveled dirt. The fire was prevented from spreading over the dry area. Only serious fire damage was to two oak trees and a tall pine which were nearest the wreckage.

Superintendent Wilmirth had called the Coalinga city ambulance, police department and Westside fire department, who dispatched crews to the scene.

Bodies and debris were strewn over an area of about 250 yard radius from the main wreckage along with pieces of luggage and personal belongings.

The Road Camp personnel had located 19 bodies by noon and a thorough search was being made in the surrounding area. On radioed order from the County Coroner's office and the Civil Aeronautic Administration in Fresno, all bodies and wreckage were left as they were found so that a complete investigation could be made subsequently.

Official Here

Several officials of Air Transport Carries and of the Civil Aeronautic Board arrived here by plane yesterday afternoon from Los Angeles to investigate the crash. Among them were ATC President Harry Cononer; ATC Chief Pilot C.C. Sherman; and insurance representative of Lloyds of London; Earl Mitchell CAB investigator, and Frank Allen and Hugh Brewster, CAB inspectors J.P. Butler, Immigration Officer from Fresno, and Deputy Coroners L.R. Webb and Herman Hannah were at the scene also.

By nightfall all 32 bodies had been found in the area and recovered from the debris. They had been transported to Fresno by County vehicle by 7:15.

No statement concerning the possible cause of the crash has been issued by the investigators. They say they are not authorized to make a statement at this time. In the meantime another CAB official was expected to arrive here late this afternoon for further investigation.

Indication are that the wing of the plane, which was one of 50 war surplus aircraft released recently by the Army and according to ATC officials, had only 2000 flying hours on its record, was not faulty. Its separation from the fuselage was apparently caused by a wing gas tank explosion.

A Routine Flight

E.C. Benson, Immigration Service Officer in Oakland said that yesterday's flight was a routine trip. Benson said the Service had averaged a flight a week for the past year. The Service had contracted with Air Transport Carriers to make the deportation trips.

The plane had taken off at Oakland Municipal Airport at 9:30 a.m. The plan was to land at Burbank for refueling and then continue to El Centro. From there the Mexican National would be transported across the border into their native land.

Copyright ©, 2005; Updated May 23, 2016