It was 61 years ago when life changed for many residents in Pacoima.
It was a day — Jan. 31, 1957 — that Dr. Stanley Capper and his wife Phyllis, now residing in Sherman Oaks, can never forget.
The morning began as a bright, sunshiny day over the San Fernando Valley. Some 800 students at Pacoima Junior High (now Middle) School and their families were gathered inside the auditorium for the winter graduation ceremony. Other students were outside of their classrooms and on the school playground, having a recess break.
But just a few minutes after 11 a.m., tragedy struck.
An Air Force F-89 Scorpion jet coming from Palmdale and a Douglas Aircraft DC-7B from the Santa Monica Airport — both on test flights — collided nearly head on in mid-air in clear skies at approximately 25,000 feet, rendering both aircraft inoperable and sending them toppling to the ground.
Images from the horrible accident show the mangled remains of the planes scattered all over the school and police, military and other experts surveying the scene, some parts still smoldering and smoking. Investigators would eventually determine that the two aircraft had most likely converged at a point northeast of Hansen Dam.
In total, eight people died, and 74 others were injured. Killed by the crash were Pacoima students Ronnie Brann, 13 and Robert Zallan, 12 — both struck by falling debris at the school — and Evan Ellner, 12 who later died in a hospital; the jet pilot Roland E. Owen, and the four-man crew of the DC-7B — pilot William Carr, copilot Archie R. Twitchell, radio operator Roy Nakazawa and flight engineer Waldo B. Adams. Their final recorded words to traffic controllers were, “Uncontrollable–we’re spinning over the Valley. Say goodbye to everybody… we’re going in.”
The navigator of the F-89, Curtiss Adams, parachuted safely to the ground immediately after the collision, sustaining a broken leg.
A teacher, John Buchanan, had just started recording the graduation ceremonies on a large reel-to-reel tape machine. Graduation speaker Linda Latrelle had just started her remarks — ironically, opening with “We only have one life to live” — then everything changed. The sounds of falling aircraft can be heard, followed by parts crashing into the school field. The concussive force from the impact of the plane hitting the ground was so strong it blew open the auditorium doors.
School officials first tried to calm those frightened inside by announcing “it was a jet blast,” and also saying it was a sonic boom. Instead it was the sheared off left wing of the DC-7B exploding just above the ground, shooting hot oil and debris in every direction.
In wasn’t only the school yard sustaining damage and terror. Burning debris and metal were raining down on Pacoima neighborhoods as the aircrafts were breaking apart. Another structure taking a hit from the wreckage was the Pacoima Congregational Church.
The accident was ruled due to pilot error and the failure of both aircraft crews to exercise proper “see and avoid” procedures regarding other aircraft while operating under visual flight rules.
The collision and aftermath gained national notoriety when angry Pacoima parents successfully petitioned officials to prohibit future test flights over populated areas. Though the San Fernando Valley was considerably less populated in 1957 than it is today, it was already home to hundreds of thousands of people.
The noise is what Capper and Phyllis remember quite well.
“I was walking with my baby, who was one year old, and I heard the crash,” Phyllis recalled. She was in Encino, several miles away and the crash was loud enough to be heard that far away. “It was extremely loud.”
Capper, who had been living in the Valley for a year after arriving from medical school in his native Philadelphia, was then working at the emergency department of the Valley Receiving Hospital, just a block away from the school. After learning what happened, he rushed to the scene.
“I Saw Kids Screaming”
“I was the first person there, the only doctor,” said Capper, now 89, retelling the story in his Sherman Oaks home.
“All the kids had just come out to the school yard. They began to run when the planes came crashing down. I saw (the kids) screaming and crying and all the kids running.”
He remembered that “all the injuries were in the back (of their bodies) as they (the planes) exploded.”
Some injuries were severe, were mostly in the head, neck and thigh. There were cuts, fractures, big and small shrapnel pieces, “like a hand grenade going off,” Capper said.
This was the age when television was still in its infancy and radio and newspaper ruled the media world. News didn’t travel at the speed of light but at a slower pace. The Valley was still a rural area and the Los Angeles freeway system was still being built.
Capper stayed on campus for at least two days afterwards, helping treat the injured.
He said doctors went from kid to kid treating on the yard. The worst cases were brought inside for further treatment before being shipped to hospitals all around.
“The doctors would write on the forehead what was given to them and how much,” he said of the morphine and other drugs administered to those hurt.
It was a trying time.
“It was like a battlefield. It was like treating soldiers that were injured, but these were kids. That’s the worst of it,” Capper said.
He Briefly Quit Being a Medical Doctor
Capper suffers from hereditary angioedema – a disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of severe swelling that is triggered by injury, emotional stress and infection. He was extremely sick for several days afterward.
“He threw up for three days,” Phyllis said. “I asked him what was wrong and he didn’t want to talk about it.” He only told her several weeks later.
“I wanted to forget it,” Capper said.
In fact, he quit his job at the emergency department and went on to become an ophthalmologist, establishing a successful practice in Encino where he treated celebrities like the actor John Wayne, among others.
After retiring, he moved to Mexico where he established and ran an emergency room for poor people for 13 years.
But the airplane crash, what he saw and what he did, are still with him.
“I think about it all the time,” Capper says. “It was a real air tragedy.”
The crash was spotlighted in the 1987 movie “La Bamba” as the reason Richie Valens, the 50s rock icon and Pacoima favorite son, was afraid to fly. Two years after the Pacoima disaster, on Feb. 3, 1959, Valens was killed along with his fellow performers and tour mates, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly, when their light plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa.