Montoursville residents recall miraculous plane crash near the borough 55 years ago
On a Friday afternoon in late July 1965, 13-year-old David Taylor and his brother were riding into Montoursville on bicycles to get their haircuts at Grant Eder’s barbershop on Broad Street when they noticed the Allegheny Airlines plane overhead.
It had just taken off from Williamsport-Lycoming County Airport in the borough and Taylor thought something could be amiss.
“We were used to aircraft flying over our house, because at the time, we lived at the end of the runway. We looked up and noticed the airplane coming out, and I said to myself ‘The engine just doesn’t sound right,'” Taylor, a life member of the Montoursville Volunteer Fire Co., said in a recent interview.
“Also, there was a lot of smoke, real heavy exhaust coming out of the engines, and I thought ‘Boy that doesn’t look right to me,'” Taylor said
The boys walked into the barbershop, but were only there for a few minutes. They did not get haircuts that day.
Eder was a fire police member of the fire company, which was then located on Washington Street, near Broad Street.
Whenever a fire call came in when he was at his shop, Eder would grab a flashlight and put on a firefighter’s helmet and “he would help direct traffic at the intersection of Broad and Montour streets during calls,” Taylor explained.
Just minutes after the boys walked into the shop, Eder was suddenly grabbing his helmet and flashlight.
“He ran outside. My brother and I were watching and thinking ‘What was going on?’ He had a radio in the shop and they said over the radio that an airplane had crashed out in Upper Fairfield Township.”
The boys raced home to tell their mother about what they had heard.
The day was Friday, July 23, 1965, and it was Allegheny Airlines Flight 604 bound for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Airport that had skidded and crashed into a wooded hillside, several miles northeast of the local airport just after 3 p.m.
Miraculously, all 36 passengers and its four crew members survived the crash, which occurred near the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on Good Shepherd Road.
“Smoke rose from the spot, just a few hundred yards from the church, which the weaving airliner narrowly missed as its pilot guided it among the hilltops to a clearing among trees. However, the plane struck a power pole and whether it was this or the faulty engine that was the principal cause of the fire was not known today,” the Williamsport Sun-Gazette reported in the next day’s edition.
The edition was filled with numerous stories and photos concerning the crash as was the Sunday Grit that came out two days later.
The voice young Taylor and his brother heard on the fire radio was believed to be that of Sandy Platt. There was no county emergency 911 system in place until early 1976.
The fire company had initially been dispatched to the airport for “a plane that was coming in for a landing with only one engine (working),” according to the Sun-Gazette article. It was believed that firefighters were dispatched then by Williamsport Fire Department Headquarters.
Platt’s husband, Leary, a fire company member, was already at the airport with other firemen, waiting for the airplane to come in when the phone rang at the Platt home on Elm Street.
The call was from the Doctors Business Bureau, a local 24-hour telephone service that took ambulance calls for several communities throughout the county, Sandy Platt said, adding that she and her husband were on the phone service’s list of fire company members to call because Leary Platt, who is known by friends as “Buzz,” was on the ambulance crew.
Sandy Platt — at home getting ready to leave for work — picked up the receiver.
“The woman on the other end said there was a report that an airplane went down by the Good Shepherd Church. Someone had called the business bureau after witnessing the plane going down. They called near the scene and reported there were a lot of survivors,” Platt recalled during a recent interview at the Montoursville firehouse.
Wasting no time, Platt bolted two blocks to the firehouse to alert the firefighters by radio of the crash. The couple only had one car, and her husband drove it to the firehouse when the initial call took place.
“I ran as fast as I could. I didn’t bother calling the firehouse because I really didn’t think anyone would be there,” she said.
“There was a base unit, a radio at the firehouse. When I got there, I grabbed the mic off the wall, held it in my hand and said ‘This is Montoursville base to any Montoursville units, the airplane is down at the Good Shepherd Church. There are survivors.’ That is just about what I said word for word,” Platt said.
The firefighters rushed to Good Shepherd Road as did firefighters from Pennsdale.
“Jimmy Johns drove the tanker truck and I was with him. When we got there, the passengers were being brought up over an embankment,” Leary Platt said.
“We didn’t see any smoke until we pulled up at the scene,” he said.
“We helped the people get back up on the road. They didn’t appear to be hurt too badly at all, just shook up. They were all a nervous wreck,” Platt said.
“As the plane went down over a hill, it mowed a set of trees down, just knocked them off,” he added.
Don Konkle, working then at the Schnadig furniture plant in the borough, also rushed to the scene. At the time, he was a volunteer firefighter for the Pennsdale Fire Company. His family later moved to Montoursville in 1971, where today he remains an active life member of the fire company.
“When I left town for the scene, the old smoke was big time. There was lots of dark smoke. The plane was engulfed in flames when I got there,” said Konkle, who was among several firefighters who helped put out the fire.
“The aircraft skidded across a field and dropped into a ravine. I think the pilot saw a couple of fields and decided to try to land on a field after realizing he wasn’t going to make it back to the airport.
Louis Hunsinger Sr., who was mission coordinator for the Civil Air Patrol, was on the scene within minutes and set up a security perimeter immediately to keep curious sightseers out of the area.
“We called out several squadrons. I believe 20 to 30 people,” Hunsinger said in a recent interview at his city home.
“The interesting thing about the crash is the pilot ended up doing everything right, but in my opinion, it was more luck than skill,” he said.
“The plane hit the ground, skidded to a top of a hill and got between two trees, clipping both wings, one on each side, which got rid of the fuel tank,” Hunsinger recalled.
“It was remarkable” no one was killed, he said. He directed security operations at the site for several days.
Many of those who were injured, including the pilot and stewardess, were taken by ambulances to Williamsport and Divine Providence hospitals.
“Symbols of Faith Provide an Answer at Scene of Crash,” read one Sun-Gazette headline that asked the question “How did they escape?”
In the article, the reporter wrote that not one, but two Bibles were recovered from the wreckage.
A fireman was holding “a nun’s big-beaded rosary. It’s unharmed,” the reporter said in the article. “Most certainly they had placed their fate in the hands of their God. The nun’s rosary, those two Bibles and that small rural church nearby — symbolic reminders of a belief that an Eternal Father rode with each and everyone of them as the plane dipped, dropped and then smashed into the pine-topped earth.
“They walked away, all 40 of them, each to see another day,” the article stated.