Thirty years ago, on July 9, 1982, a Las Vegas-bound Pan American Boeing 727 jetliner, Flight 759, crashed in a blinding thunderstorm seconds after takeoff from New Orleans International Airport (now Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport).
There were no survivors. It was, at the time, the second worst airline disaster in U.S. history.
The crash changed life forever for Kaye Schiefelbein. On the plane were her parents, Frederick Paul “Fritz” and Germaine Fitzgerald Schiefelbein, who lived in Baker; her grandmother, Mamie Miller Fitzgerald, of Addis; and aunts and uncles Warren E. “Pucky” Fitzgerald, a former mayor of Addis; Eugene and Barbara Fitzgerald Casey, of Baker; and Natalie Fitzgerald Coco Hood, of Baton Rouge. Hood was architect A. Hays Town’s secretary.
The seven family members were traveling to Las Vegas for the funeral of Kaye Schiefelbein’s uncle, Donald Fitzgerald.
“The day was really rainy,” Kaye Schiefelbein said. “My husband, our children and I were on our way to see the movie ‘E.T.’ at the Bon Marche theater when we heard about a crash on the radio.”
Schiefelbein tried to reach her brother, Kirk Schiefelbein, but she was told that he had left work. “We drove to my parents’ house in Baker,” she said. “There were lots of cars, and people were there, so before I went in, I knew they were on the plane.”
The flight, which originated in Miami with a stop in New Orleans, plunged into Morningside subdivision, a quiet residential neighborhood in Kenner, killing eight people on the ground. On board were 136 paid passengers, seven crewmen, an infant and an airline employee riding for free. Baton Rouge resident, Evelyn Jeffers, a deputy tax assessor, was also among the victims.
The plane took off from New Orleans at 4:09 p.m. Witnesses on the ground said they heard a “putt-putt” noise from the engines as the plane struggled into the air. “Seconds later, it slammed into the ground, crushing several homes on impact and throwing fiery debris over a wide area,” The Advocate reported two days after the crash.
Witnesses said the plane first struck a tree, clipped a large shed, plowed into a house, jumped 70 feet to the left, tore through a second house and then landed on a third house. The plane and 13 homes burned through pouring rain.
Advocate photographer Bill Feig was in the newsroom when word of the crash came over The Associated Press wire. He and then Photo Editor Stan Alost, jumped in a car and headed to the scene. “We were at the crash site within an hour,” Feig said. “There was only a big pile of rubble and the tail of the plane with the Pan Am logo. It was bad. It looked like a war scene.”
Feig particularly remembers seeing toys and stuffed animals. “They had set up a hangar at the airport for injured people and survivors, but nobody showed up. There weren’t any survivors,” he said.
When the fires finally died down almost a day after the crash, what rescue workers found was devastating. Many of the passengers were still strapped into their seats. “Most of the bodies we have found so far were burned beyond recognition,” said Capt. Mike Demma, of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department. “About 40 percent we have found were blown apart in pieces, the other 60 percent were found intact.”
Demma said 10 bodies were “crammed together” at the front of the aircraft. “It looked as if they had all gotten together in the front,” he said.
He also reported that 15 to 18 more bodies were found in the plane’s tail section indicating that they had survived the crash and were attempting to escape the fire through the rear emergency door.
Seven people on the ground died instantly. Six-year-old Lisa Baye died later at a local hospital.
There was one miracle. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Hibbs pulled a crying, dirty 16-month-old baby from the wreckage of her home. Hibbs saw a mattress while digging through debris. “Then I saw it going up and down,” he told State-Times reporter Edward Pratt. “I pulled it over, and I saw the baby lying there. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Jesus, it’s alive.’”
Little Melissa Trahan, whose mother and sister were killed instantly, survived with only burns on her feet and fingers.
As often happens in disasters, neighbors and complete strangers showed up to provide aid and comfort. “Hundreds of people scurried about helping or wanting to help in the massive cleanup effort, many still dumbfounded by pieces of wreckage scattered along the path cut through four city blocks by the skidding Boeing 727,” wrote the late Mike Dunne, an Advocate staff writer.
In the midst of the debris, wooden stakes with red flags marked the spots where bodies were found. Dunne described the image of a teddy bear lying next to a pair of huge landing gear wheels.
Local businesses brought hamburgers and sandwiches to the hundreds of first responders who worked through the day following the crash in an effort to find all of the bodies.
Neighbors whose homes were spared opened them with the most generous hospitality. The Cusack family, whose home was a mere 100 feet from the destruction, posted a big sign with the word “bathroom.” A picnic table in their front yard was stacked with food and drinks.
The Rev. Peter Rogers, a Catholic priest who worked closely with the New Orleans Police Department, went through the wreckage performing last rites.
Kaye Schiefelbein and her family never received a call from Pan Am verifying that her family members were on the plane. “We just knew,” she said.
Her parents’ remains were brought from New Orleans to Rabenhorst Funeral Home on Government Street. “I saw two caskets not knowing which one was which and were they really my parents,” she said. “I asked for the coffins to be opened so I could see, but the funeral director told me that it would be best that I remember them as I knew them.”
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that wind shear had most probably caused the crash. This accident and a similar Delta crash three years later led to the requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration that all turbine-powered commercial aircraft have on-board wind shear detection systems installed.
On Monday, Kaye Schiefelbein will attend a memorial service by the city of Kenner, Mayor Michael Yenni and the Kenner City Council at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where there is a permanent memorial to the crash victims.
There have been memorial services in other years. Although Schiefelbein has never attended, she will be there this year to read aloud the names of her family members who died in the disaster.
Story updated on July 8 to correct spelling of Mike Dunne's name.
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