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Fiery Plane Crash Recalled 39 Years Later

Chances are you can figure out who has lived here a long time by asking only one question, "Do you remember the plane that crashed into the apartment?"

 

Imagine a jet flying 400 miles per hour at 28,000 feet altitude plummeting to the ground in the middle of the Island, slamming into a multi-story apartment complex then bursting into flames.

For those who find that hard to fathom or think it's the plot line for a new action adventure film, you are either newcomers to the Island or too young to remember what for many Alamedans was a defining moment in their lives.

Locals of a certain age have stored the image of what happened Wednesday, Feb. 7, 1973 at 8:13 p.m. right next to their memories of the day President Kennedy was assasinated, John Lennon was gunned down and the Twin Towers fell.

For those who witnessed the deadly accident or saw its immediate aftermath, the crash of the jet into the four-story Tahoe Apartments at 1814 Central Avenue, smack dab in the middle of the Island, was a life-changing moment.

The plane that crashed was actually one of two U.S. Navy A-7E Corsair II jet interceptors that were flying together on a routine training flight to Sacramento from the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Fresno. (Yes, that's right, this was not a jet flying in or out of the former Naval Air Station Alameda as some have assumed over the years.)

The impact, explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the apartment house and spread to three adjacent apartment buildings.

The pilot and ten people on the ground were killed. Over two dozen more were injured.

(To get a sense of the size of the apartment it hit, you can see an aerial photograph of the Sycamore Apartments (Former site of Tahoe Apartments) here.)

A detailed and harrowing account of the crash can be found on this site of notable California aviation disasters. Here are some excerpts from that report: 

"One of the jets, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward, 28, inexplicably broke from the formation. Moments later, the pilot of the second Corsair, flight leader Lt. John Pianetta, noticed that Ward’s jet was no longer flying alongside his own aircraft and radioed Oakland Air Traffic Control that he had 'lost his wing man.'”

Pianetta was given permission to turn back to look for Ward’s Corsair and as he banked his aircraft to try to locate the missing jet, he witnessed a fiery explosion erupt far below, amidst the twinkling lights of the city of Alameda.

Lt. Ward’s jet, traveling at more that 400 mph, had plunged out of the nighttime sky at a steep angle and slammed into the four-story Tahoe Apartments building at 1814 Central Avenue in the center of the city....

Over the next several days, investigators sifting through the smoldering rubble determined that 11 people, including Lieutenant Ward, the jet’s pilot, had been killed in the disaster. Twenty-six other people were treated at nearby hospitals and eventually released....

A Navy board of inquiry, formed at the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station to investigate the crash, heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including two civilian metallurgists. One, Charles F. Choa, told the Navy board that he had found evidence of a cockpit fire involving the pilot’s oxygen hose, and that the in-flight blaze was “very near” Ward’s oxygen mask.

The second metallurgist, Mario Lara, told the panel that while performing lab tests, he had managed to create a similar blaze with a glowing cigarette.  Lara testified that while a lighted match took too long to produce the type of blaze present in the Corsair’s cockpit, the burning cigarette touched off the oxygen hose “immediately.” Asked whether he could determine the cause of the fire, Lara said “any flame or spark” — although he did not specifically blame it on a lit cigarette.

You can listen to a detailed and compelling oral history of the event from former Alameda mayor Terry LaCroix at the California Digital Story Telling Project website. 

Also look for more details on the Notable California Air Disasters website and on this aviation history site.  

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sara zehnder-wallace February 08, 2013 at 01:24 AM
Of course I remember that night very well! I was nine years old and talking on the phone, the old fashion kind that dialed and plugged in the wall. We lived in a large house in the Gold Coast with a long hallway designated specifically just for this activity, and I had taken out my hamster to let her run about a bit. Unfortunately I forgot all about her as I gabbed then suddenly remembered her. Just as I yelled out, "Tammy!!" the plane hit, rocking all 8,000 square feet of that house and sending a noise through the rooms that was loud even for a family with seven kids. I don't remember what I thought at that moment but we were all home alone, an especially rare occurrence as my parents never went out. I remember my brothers raced up the stairs to the attic where we had a great view of the flames about a half mile away. Sirens and explosions. Pretty exciting stuff for a little kid! We watched for a long time not knowing what had happened until the next day. I went to bed a sad little girl that night, not for the crash but for my hamster, Tammy, whom I never saw again!
LESLIE FERNANDES January 16, 2014 at 07:57 AM
I lived at 1418 Central Ave. at the time of the crash. That evening my Grandparents were over for dinner we were enjoying our evening when suddenly our building shook and we heard a huge boom. As we looked out our dining room window we could see fire in the same neighborhood as my then husbands brother's house. My husband took off running in the direction of the fire and reported back that people were sliding down sheets to escape the flames. The island was literally shut off to the outside world as rescue vehicles raced to the scene. I remember hearing helicopters flying over head and seeing flatbed trucks hauling debris past our building for what seemed like weeks, there was also a terrible smell in the air for days. I drive past the site of the crash all the time and still get chills up and down my spine thinking of that day. I also believe my grandmother suffered a stroke that day as her behavior was changed the following day.
Bill Davenport May 26, 2014 at 11:48 PM
I remember that night. I was only ten. I was at my friend's house two blocks away at 1205 Lafayette St. We were watching TV and their parents were not home. There was a huge crash and the house shook. I thought a truck had hit the house. We ran outside, but there was no truck, but people were running down the road toward a huge fire. We followed them to the crash site and saw the apartment building burning. Later that night after I got home, it was on the news and I remember my parents, who lived on 2061 Buena Vista Ave., said that it sounded like a tractor trailer on it's side was sliding down the road before the huge crash. The plane had gone past my house (where they were) before it crashed. Since I was so near to the crash site when it hit, we didn't hear anything before the crash. I wonder if it was going above the speed of sound. Thanks for the post. I had heard that no one on the ground died. Maybe that's just what they told me at that age. I also remember hearing that the pilot had stayed with the plane trying to maneuver it away from the populated areas, but that's probably just what they told me too.
Ken Harrison May 27, 2014 at 02:02 AM
Well, I too remember that evening, and I was not a child. I lived (and still do) on San Antonio near Union. I had left home to go to my favorite local liquor store (at Webster and Central) for some libations, and as I drove back on San Antonio Ave. I saw this fireball explode directly in my approach path. My first thought was "Oh shit, there goes my house." Then I remembered the bend that takes place on San Antonio at Morton. That directed me away from the fire. What a relief! For the longest time I blamed NAS Alameda for having been involved (even though I could not prove it( in this catastrophe. What this episode does is remind me to ask the question, "Whats the point..." of any military operations over our fair island?
Ervin Deck June 09, 2014 at 05:07 PM
I was a young air traffic controller in the tower at NAS Alameda that night and remember this accident as if it happened yesterday. I recall the first indications that an accident occurred when the accident pilot's wingman contacted the tower asking us if we know anything about the fire. We turned around and saw the flames. Shortly after that the Oakland Police helicopter contacted us and said they had a report of an airplane accident. We know it wasn't from the air station, but beyond that, we were totally confused. Of course it didn't take long to find out what happened. I recall walking into my apartment about 2 hours later than normal to my new wife crying thinking I was at fault. I couldn't call her because the phone lines were out and and initial reports were it came from Alameda. A long long time ago, but still fresh in my memory. And I'm still married to the same wonderful women.

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