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PIECES OF THE PAST: 70 years ago, a passenger plane crashes into the bluffs near Winona

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Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Winona Republican-Herald on Monday, Aug. 30, 1948. Closway was the executive editor.

On the precipitous bluff where 37 persons died in the crash of a Northwest Airlines plane late Sunday afternoon, grim workers this morning had located and brought out most of the mangled bodies.

Two representatives of The Republican-Herald were among the first to arrive at the crash scene.

We received the first call that “a small plane” had gone down in the river bottomlands north of Winona between this city and Fountain City about 5:20 p.m.

With Bill White, one of our photographers, we drove up Wisconsin Hwy. 35 to the Midway tavern, where a small crowd was gathering. No one seemed to know what had happened or where.

Someone shouted that they believed the plane fell into the swamps on the river side of the Burlington railroad. We drove almost to the Burlington tracks, then began to plow our way through the swampland in search of any pieces of wreckage. At times we waded up to our waists in water and suddenly someone shouted, “Here’s a piece of the ship.”

We hurried to the point where Randy Johnson, 458 Center St., Winona, and Roy Willetts, Minneapolis, were standing in deep water. In our party was Jack Volkel, a Northwest Airlines pilot who was in Winona for the day between flights.

“It’s the left wing tip of a Martin 2-0-2,” said Volkel. The piece was about 10 feet long, its tip painted red. A few pieces of cable were fastened to It.

We then searched the bottomland for about 15 minutes more and finally decided to try the search in the hills.

We started into the hills up what ordinarily is a dry run but now was almost a raging river because of the intense rain. People were flocking into the hills from almost every direction and many were yelling to others as to what they had found.

When we reached a point about five blocks from the road we found the first body. It was that of a man and it was decapitated and one leg was gone. The body was partly in the creek and partly on the bank.

We quickly surmised that the crash must be up in the bluffs and that the body had been washed down the hill by the rushing water.

We then started to work our way up the muddy, rocky creek to the top of the hills. The bluffs are about 500 feet high at that point and the creek flows down through a valley. The going was difficult because the creek banks had been washed away and where the water had subsided, the mud was a foot deep.

We climbed almost to the top of one bluff through a valley but found nothing more so retraced our steps to where we had found the first body. Then we took another branch of the creek and about four blocks from the first body, we found the second — that of a woman. It was so badly mangled it was impossible to tell it was a human being. She was still clutching a red purse in her hands.

We found four other bodies on our way up the steep bluff side. The wet leaves made the climbing rough and at times we could progress only an our hands and knees. The hillside went up at at least a 45-degree angle at that point and the creek banks were 10- to 15-feet high. It was a heavily wooded area and dead trees crashed to the ground as the searching party moved forward.

We then found one of the engines and the strong odor of gasoline told us we were nearing the crash scene. Then as we got almost to the top of the hill there it was. A terrible sight. Flattened and twisted wreckage wrapped around trees and scattered over an area about 100 feet wide and 250 feet down the steep hillside.

Walter Haeussinger of the Winona police force already was there and warned us against lighting matches or smoking. By that time it was dark and we had made the last 100 feet of the climb in darkness.

I counted at least 10 bodies in the wreckage and could identify the pilot in what must have been the cockpit by the color of his uniform. One of the dead women was holding a baby in her arms.

Others arrived and Winona police and Buffalo County officials took charge. It was obvious that no one was alive. Photographers began to take their pictures. Among the first to arrive was Gene Johnson of Winona.

After getting all the information I could, I walked at least two miles to the ridge road which runs between Wisconsin Hwy. 85 and Bluff Siding. The road already was lined with cars. An Eau Claire man who was driving through volunteered to take me to Fountain City where I gave the first news of the crash to The Associated Press. The highway from Fountain City to Winona was jammed with cars and the traffic moved slowly.

Throughout our climb several small planes were circling overhead attempting to find the wreckage. Among the first to land near the top of the hill were Marvin Northrup, one of the owners of the Winona Flying Service, and John LaBarre. Earlier in the search the planes swept low over the river bottoms and would cut their engines over the searching parties and yell to the ground, directing searchers to other pieces of wreckage.

From the point where we found the wing tip to the top of the hill was at least two miles. Another part of a wing was found on the hillside just above the Midway tavern.

At the crash scene, which was on the John Sutter farm, a farmer and his son arrived. They were William Pehler and his son Charles.

“We saw the plane go over our farm and thought it was going to crash into our barn,” Mr. Pehler said. “It was making a terrible noise, almost as bad as the thunder, and was whirling in a crazy manner.

The ship then veered upward, cleared the crest of the hill, went over the valley and crashed on the top of the hill. We didn’t see it actually hit.”

In our party going up the hill was Bernerd Gaiennie and several others. They had heard a flash report of the crash over KWNO and were among the volunteers who responded to the call for help in finding the wreckage.

When the plane flew over the Pehler farm it was traveling almost directly east. It is believed the pilot, en route upriver, hit the storm so suddenly that he lost control of the ship. Then it swung eastward and then back down the river.

By 1 p.m. today, Monday, the remains of all passengers and crew were accounted for. Volunteers had carried 10 of the bodies from the rain-soaked bluff in the darkness last night.

This morning the workers and police and sheriff’s men, helped by investigating officials, were digging into the main portion of the wreckage to find the bodies.

Bodies were being taken to Fountain City and placed temporarily in the civic auditorium there. The bodies will be held there until the families of the victims can arrive to make identification.

Many relatives of victims were already in Fountain City to claim the remains this afternoon.

Although it was first believed that there were 33 passengers and three crew members, the body of another man brought the list of passengers to 34, making the total killed 37.

But even as the litter bearers labored up the rugged hillside, officials of the Northwest Airlines and inspectors from the Civil Aeronautics administration and the Civil Aeronautics board were probing the scene for clues to the accident’s cause.

The bulk of the wreckage settled about 200 feet down a slope. Officials had roped off a wide area until the investigation can be completed.

But progress was laborious. The hillside was muddy and still slippery from the rain. The fuselage was discernible. Jagged, twisted chunks of metal and other fragments of plane were scattered across the woodland.

Huge oak trees had been sheared off. It was evident that the plane had crashed into the bluff during the severe storm with terrific impact. Most of the right wing lay rumpled 40 feet below the fuselage. A fragment of tail assembly was some 35 feet west of the main portion of wreckage.

The silent litter bearers fought their way up the hill, four and six to a stretcher. They carried the bodies from the wreckage and up a ravine so steep the men pulled their way up by a rope stretched down from the summit. The bodies, covered with canvas or blankets were placed in trucks waiting atop the hill.

Earl Smith, CAB Inspector from Minneapolis, joined other investigators this morning to piece together the mystery of the crash.

He directed some of the probers, including E. C. Hodson, CAB official from Chicago and J. F. Woodhead, Northwest Airlines manager of flight operations, to comb the countryside for other evidence.

“This is the result of the trouble,” he said, pointing at the wreckage strewn down the ravine. “Some of the pieces scattered about will give us a better idea of the cause.”

One group led by Hodson and Woodhead left the scene of the crash and drove down the hill to the river to seek a portion of the left wing which was found in a swamp about two miles from the wreckage. The wingtip, red and silver, lay at the foot of a cottonwood tree, not far from the river. It was in a swamp about a quarter of a mile toward the river from the Burlington tracks.

Searchers said another portion of the wing had fallen on the hillside behind the Midway tavern and that a door also had fallen near there.

Robert L. Simmons, regional CAA official from Minneapolis, who was scouring the wreckage scene, said it was difficult to determine which way the plane was heading when it struck the hill. He placed the time of the crash at a few minutes after 5 p.m., judging; from the last report from the plane and the time it would take to cover the distance.

Northwest Airlines officials in the Twin Cities said today the line’s remaining 24 Martin 2-0-2’s, all operating on domestic routes, would be thoroughly inspected before takeoff.

Rerouting or substitution of different types of planes would be temporarily necessary in some instances, the officials said. They said that preliminary investigation gave them no reason to believe structural or mechanical failure caused the crash.

The plane was one of the airlines newer Martin 2-0-2 ships and was bound for Minneapolis from Chicago with 34 passengers and three crew members.

It left Chicago at 3:50 p.m. and although due in Minneapolis at 5:30 p.m. apparently was behind schedule because of the storm.

One witness told the coroner he saw the plane fall into the ravine on Sutters Ridge after lightning or wind apparently shattered a wing.

Howard Rackow, a farmer living on Prairie Island, told the coroner he was getting some stock out of the storm when the plane passed over.

“I was in the yard with my mother,” he said. “There was a flash of lightning. It struck the plane. A part of a wing fell off and the ship started down.”

Mrs. Charles Guenther, a Fountain City farm woman, told a similar story. She and her husband saw the crash from their automobile.

“We were returning from Winona and saw the plane rolling like a barrel,” she said. “Some pieces of the plane fell off. Then it crashed.” Mrs. Guenther placed the crash at about 5:30 p.m.

Bits of wreckage were scattered over, a wide area. Some of it was found in several parts of Winona.

NWA’s Twin Cities headquarters said its last message from the plane was received at 5 p.m. and read, “Am descending through heavy overcast.” The plane then was at 7,000 feet and in the vicinity of La Crosse. The pilot indicated he would go down to 8,000 feet. A spokesman said it is normal procedure for the planes to begin their descent at La Crosse preparatory to landing at the Twin Cities.

The crash was the worst in NWA’s history. Thirty persons died when one of the line’s Orient planes smashed into the side of an Alaskan mountain last March 30.

Less than two months ago, NWA was given a National Safety Council award for having flown more than a billion miles without an accident.

Editor’s note: While many guessed the plane was struck by lightning, there was a structural flaw in the left wing. A CAB investigation revealed there were a series of cracks in the wing and requested all Martin 2-0-2 planes to fly at lower speeds.


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