One terrifying night
- Sharon Nesbit
- Gresham Outlook - News
Flight 173 crashed 30 years ago in East County neighborhood
It was 30 years ago on Dec. 28 when United Airlines flight 173 crashed into a neighborhood at Northeast 157th Avenue and Burnside Street. Outlook reporter Sharon Nesbit interviewed emergency workers and victims for this story, which first appeared in 1998.
They remember it as the night of the pink snow.
At dinnertime on Dec. 28, 1978, a United Airlines DC-8, Flight 173, with 189 passengers and crew aboard, crashed at Northeast 157th and Burnside.
On Gresham Butte, a woman watched from her window, telling her husband, 'It looks like that plane is going down.'
'They never do,' he said, not bothering to look up.
Later it was learned that the plane ran out of fuel while circling and dealing with suspect landing gear. Capt. Malburn 'Buddy' McBroom, who survived, said he tried to aim the plane at a dark spot.
The big plane, with a wingspread of 180 feet, crossed over Stark Street at an estimated 70 feet. It smashed a vacant house on the south side of Burnside Street and skidded across Burnside, shattering an empty house on the north side. The plane broke open and stopped, its slide arrested by fir trees and power lines. The huge tail loomed eerily through the tangle of broken trees.
A woman in a neighboring house was feeding her baby when the plane pounded into the ground. She snatched the child from a high chair and peered out to see people.
'We're from the plane,' they said. She let them in, spreading towels on the floor for the injured.
The rescuers focused on the immediate - 10 dead (eight passengers and two crew members), 23 seriously injured, 50 minor injuries and 106 healthy, but stunned, passengers.
At the back of their minds, the rescuers harbored a parenthetical question: 'Why pink snow?' Later they realized it was pink insulation material from the plane and the destroyed houses. It formed a cloud over the crash and fell gently from 6:14 p.m., when the plane hit, until about 10 that night.
Aimee Conner, survivor
Conner, of Portland, was 17 when she got safely out of the plane. In 1998, then a new mom with a 6-month-old son, she organized a reunion of survivors and rescuers. 'How many plane crash survivors are there?' she asked.
'We don't know each other at all,' she says of the people who met for the reunion. 'But we have a unique bond.'
Surviving such an event, she observed, is not exactly like talking to people who won the lottery. With lottery winners, she notes, 'you hear that money hasn't done much good for them. We have found some good in the experience.'
Bill Ristau, retired, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
Ristau and a partner were at an apartment complex on Northeast 162nd Avenue when the plane went down.
'Gee, Bob,' Ristau said to his partner, 'look at that plane. It's really low.'
'Then we heard something that sounded like shots,' he remembered. 'I learned later it was the plane snapping off Douglas fir trees on the way down. The sky lit up, and it still didn't dawn on me.'
Ten minutes after the crash, Ristau was there.
'It was total darkness … People were walking around and didn't appear hurt. I saw a man in a white shirt. 'What happened?' he said. I told him a plane had crashed, and he said, 'I'm the captain.' '
Ristau observed that electrical lines were down everywhere, 'but no one was electrocuted.'
He helped people down from the plane. The luggage, he remembers, was a reminder of Christmas, spilled gifts, new things in boxes, with tags and wrapping paper.
Wray Jacobs, retired, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
'I went in there shortly after the others did. We all just pitched in carrying people,' Jacobs remembered. 'Some of those neighbors responded well. It is amazing how people respond.'
One scene, he said, 'I will remember it as long as I live. Another deputy, Larry Aab, was carrying the body of a little girl out of that wreck. He was crying. The little girl looked like his daughter, same age, the same coloring.'
Connie Johnson, retired criminalist, Gresham Police Department
The Gresham Police Department sent Johnson to take pictures.
'God, it was cold,' he remembered.
The DC-8 broke open between the cockpit and the first-class section. The cockpit, he remembered, was rolled back under the body of the plane, crumpled to a ball no bigger than a dining room table for six.
When Johnson arrived, rescuers were still bringing bodies from the plane. The open end of the fuselage, spilling seats and commonplace items, was so high off the ground that men stood on the ground with the arms extended high over their heads to receive the injured and dead.
Nearby was a dead flight attendant.
'She had been knocked clear out of her boots,' he remembered.
Johnson, who died in 2006, won a national award for law enforcement photos taken that night. He returned the next day and took more.
'There was a lot of jealousy between Fire District 10 and the Multnomah County Sheriff's office,' he said. 'I remember (Chief) Dick Ham arguing with the sheriff's deputy about who was in charge. The next day, even though all the victims were gone, they had the big triage tent up.'
Leonard Blodgett, a United Airlines employee for 40 years
Six of the 10 who died were United employees or in the United family, Blodgett said. In addition to the deceased flight attendant and the flight engineer, four United family members traveling on a 'space available' basis were killed. Elizabeth Ardor, 4, lost her parents and two sisters in the crash.
Aris Painter, then nursing administrator at Gresham Hospital
'An incredible number of people came out of the woodwork to help,' remembered Painter, who first heard of the crash from a secretary with a police scanner.
Only two or three injured came to Gresham Hospital, then in the old building in downtown Gresham. The pilot was among them.
'He was more emotionally banged up than anything,' she remembered.
(Capt. McBroom died in 2004.)
Bob Whisler, retired PGE service inspector
Whisler was in Eagle Creek in Clackamas County when the plane crashed. Even there the lights blinked because the sliding plane took out two high lines of 50,000 volts or more.
Putting on his PGE hard hat and walking in 'like I owned the place,' Whisler went to the crash site.
'The (electric) wires helped, like landing on an aircraft carrier with a tail hook,' he says.
Whisler, an acknowledged airplane 'nut,' took his first flight to Hawaii a few weeks later.
Lynn Egli, Corvallis, survivor
Egli was in Row 18, right side, middle seat, on his way to Portland from Kansas to visit his girlfriend, Roberta, now his wife.
Egli said passengers were instructed 'very well' to prepare for an emergency landing.
'Somebody from the back yelled, 'Get your head down' … I have a fair amount of memory loss from that point until I ended up in the back yard of somebody's house.'
At the airport, Egli's girlfriend was told that 'the flight had landed short of the runway.'
Two hours after the crash, Egli arrived at the airport by bus. He called his parents in Iowa, thinking they would not know of the event, but they were watching it on TV.
'Mom always writes down my flight number,' he said. 'It took me three hours to call. It never crossed my mind that they would know.'
'It was a profound thing,' he said. 'I knew I was supposed to be alive. I really felt that God wanted me to be alive. He sure had plenty of opportunity. The wings were right outside of the window and broken off, yet the fuselage was all intact. I was able to survive that tremendous force just a few feet outside the window.'
A few filed lawsuits after the crash, but Egli doesn't believe in that.
'Since I didn't quite get to my destination, it seemed fair that they reimburse me for my ticket, and I had a hole in my suitcase. They gave me a check for $500 and made me sign a big multi-page document saying I would never sue them. Well, dadgummit, I flew back to Kansas four days later on United.'