Originally published Dec. 31, 1999
On a lovely Sunday afternoon in September 1972, a bunch of kids from the Sacramento 49ers youth football team were celebrating a dad's birthday party at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor on Freeport Boulevard when their world came to an end.
A plane leaving an air show at Executive Airport directly across the street crashed into the red, white and blue ice cream parlor, causing an explosion and fireball that turned "The Happy Place," as the parlor was known, into a smoldering tomb.
The Korean War-vintage F-86 Sabrejet fighter lost control at the end of the runway, smashed into a barrier, then skidded across Freeport Boulevard and into a corner window of Farrell's, killing 22 people, 12 of them children.
Another 25 people were injured in what to that point was the nation's worst air-ground catastrophe.
The plane was owned by ultraconservative cosmetics manufacturer William Pan Patrick, who was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1966 Republican gubernatorial primary.
The pilot, Richard Bingham of Novato, chose to try to get the plane airborne rather than eject. A bowler from the lanes down the street raced to the scene, smashed into the cockpit and pulled out the semi-conscious pilot, who suffered a broken arm and a broken leg. When he regained consciousness, Bingham sat on a bench, crying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry . . . "
Fourteen of the 17 patrons sitting at window tables died, including Warren Krier, who was there celebrating his 32nd birthday with his family and best friends. Birthdays were a special ritual at Farrell's -- birthday boys and girls were coaxed to wear straw hats while sirens, bells, drums and blinking lights marked the occasion.
But this birthday/football party was marked by police sirens and the flashing lights of ambulances. Krier, his wife, Sandra, and their two children -- Jennifer, 8, and 2-year-old Brandon -- all perished. So did Krier's best friend, Tony Martin, his wife, Sue, their three children -- Gregory, 6, Jeanene, 4, and Sean, 3 -- and four other relatives.
Martin's eldest son, Steve, 8, was found cowering under a table but alive, thanks to his football pads.
The Kriers and Martins weren't the only families celebrating. Christi Kiehn, 12, had driven up from Stockton with her parents, four siblings and two neighbor kids to indulge in Farrell's famous "Zoo" -- a mountain of ice cream traditionally accompanied by sirens, bells and drums.
Kiehn was about to dig into her Zoo when tables came flying out of the back room and all hell broke loose. Kiehn was able to save her 3 1/2-year-old neighbor, Kerri Francis, but Kerri's twin sister, Kristin, died, along with Kiehn's mother, Joan Bacci.
Of all the heroes who stepped up that tragic afternoon, none was more worthy than Sacramento Police Officer Derald R. Landberg.
Time and again, Landberg entered the burning building to rescue women and children, then led firefighters through the intense heat and smoke to trapped victims. Finally, he helped a volunteer doctor tend to the injured in the makeshift infirmary outside the building.
Landberg, who is credited with saving a dozen people, was only the second officer in the history of the Sacramento Police Department to receive the Gold Medal of Valor.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilot tried to lift off too quickly, pointing the nose of the jet three times higher than the normal angle. Instead of becoming airborne sooner, the plane had trouble getting off the ground.
While blaming the pilot, the NTSB noted that the airport's short runway -- in concert with the trees, buildings, water towers and other objects surrounding the airport -- "could result in a sense of urgency about becoming airborne as soon as possible."
The NTSB also said that if the plane hadn't been part of an air show, it wouldn't have been allowed to land or take off from Executive Airport, partly because Bingham didn't have the necessary training to fly the 20-year-old plane into and out of an unfamiliar airport.
As early as 1964, airport manager Don Smith had warned against building the shopping center so close to the runway, only to be ignored by city officials. County Board Chairman Patrick Melarkey also blamed "irresponsible" developers for building the center.
The crash, which wasn't the first in neighborhoods around Executive Airport, forced the closure of the runway to jets, led to a land-use plan for the surrounding area and resulted in a $5 million out-of-court settlement for the survivors and relatives of those who died.