45 years ago today: Farrell’s plane crash shocks Sacramento

Editor’s note: The Sacramento Bee’s Allen Pierleoni wrote this Sept. 24, 2012, story about the 40th anniversary of the fatal airplane crash into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour:

On a humid Sunday afternoon, Sacramento Firefighters Pipes and Drums played “Amazing Grace” as 23 white doves were released into the air.

They commemorated the adults and children killed 40 years ago when a jet taking off from Sacramento Executive Airport across the street crashed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour.

Shortly before the doves’ release, speakers addressed 200 people – including survivors and relatives of those killed – who had gathered in a parking lot at the Sacramento Public Safety Center off Freeport Boulevard.

The five speakers delivered emotional words of hope and faith at the tearful anniversary observance of one of the most horrific disasters in Sacramento history.

One of them was Kerri Francis McCluskey, whose twin sister, Kristi Francis, was killed Sept. 24, 1972, when a jet careened off Runway 30 and crashed into Farrell’s.

The twins were almost 4 at the time, visiting from Stockton. They were inside the parlor with their young baby-sitter’s family. Kristi was killed; Kerri suffered a broken leg.

McCluskey led the drive for a memorial rose garden, with its two metal benches, stone obelisk fountain, concrete marker and two metal plaques with the names of those killed. It was dedicated March 15, 2003, “in loving memory” of the deceased.

The main memorial plaque bears a quote from McCluskey: “Believe with the heart of a child; find courage, comfort and strength there.”

“I took on the city in 2002,” she said before Sunday’s service. “After a year of phone calls, pavement-pounding and fundraising, the community finally came together.”

The main plaque also has four angels on it, drawn by McCluskey’s daughter, Kristin, when she was 4, and molded into the metal. Kristin is 15 now and was with her mother Sunday.

McCluskey lives in Sonora and is the counselor at the same elementary school she attended as a child after her family moved from Stockton. It overlooks the cemetery where her twin is buried.

“I’ve taken what I’ve dealt with and (used it to) help children for the last 20 years,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss my sister, but there is still a wonderful life to live and joy to find.

“That’s how I’ve tried to make sense of it,” she said. “It could have been me who died just as easily, but I was left behind for a reason. Being a twin, I feel like I need to live double to make up for the time Kristi didn’t have with us.”

The moment of impact

Around 4:30 p.m. on that Sunday 40 years ago, 12 children and 10 adults were killed, and 25 other people were injured, when the 16,000- pound gold, blue and white Korean War-era F-86 Sabre jet was unable to get airborne and careened out of control, crashing into Farrell's in the Crossroads shopping center.

The pilot was trying to leave for the jet’s home base after the weekend Golden West Sport Aviation Show at Executive Airport, on Runway 30 directly in line with the ice cream parlor.

The jet left the runway at 150 mph, ricocheted off a berm and through a fence, skidded across Freeport Boulevard and crashed into Farrell’s.

Hearing the explosion and seeing the fireball, a woman became the 23rd victim when she was struck and killed by a car as she frantically dashed across the street toward the parlor, believing her grandchildren were inside. They were not.

The pilot, Richard Bingham of Novato, suffered a broken leg and broken arm.

Among other things, the tragedy resulted in an improved land-use plan for the surrounding area. The Crossroads center was replaced by the Sacramento Public Safety Center in 2002. Runway 30 is still in use. The memorial park is situated where Farrell’s front door used to be.

Among the attendees Sunday was Lynn Mehren, whose daughter, Nancy Ann Rodriguez, was 8 when she was killed in the tragedy.

Mehren was home; her daughter had gone to the parlor with friends.

“I’ve had to (focus on) celebrating Nancy’s life that we did have together,” Mehren said. “She was one of the happiest little girls you could ever imagine.

“For 30 years, I wasn’t able to even come near this part of town,” she said. “When I finally came to the memorial (10 years ago), it was like a release.”

Sitting in chairs in the shade of a tent were Lisa Guillen and her mother, Shirley Vandiver. They were inside Farrell’s when hell came to earth.

“Lisa was 9. It was her birthday and she had invited two girls from the neighborhood to have ice cream,” Vandiver said. “(We were leaving) when there was a god-awful noise. A young woman (employee) said, ‘You'd better get outside because something blew up in the kitchen.’ There was a lot of smoke and noise, and we left. I didn’t pay the bill; it didn’t seem important. I still have it.”

“We were the first ones out of the building, but I remember seeing the wall of mirrors come crashing down,” Guillen said. “I don’t think it really dawned on me (until later) how lucky we really were.”

Retired firefighter Bob Fallon was also at the Sunday service. He was aboard Engine No. 13, the first firetruck on the scene 40 years ago.

“When we got there, survivors had pulled some people out, and we helped pull out the rest,” he recalled. “It was a grisly scene, a lot of smoke and fire. I’d never seen anything like it before, and nothing like it since.”

Tragedy raised burn awareness

One of the positive things to emerge in the aftermath was the Firefighters Burn Institute.

Sacramento firefighters had been trying to establish a burn-treatment center prior to it, but couldn’t get traction.

As victims were removed from Farrell’s and taken to hospitals, it became agonizingly clear that Sacramento lacked sufficient burn-treatment facilities to deal with such a catastrophe.

Soon afterward, Sacramento Fire Department Capt. Cliff Haskell and Firefighters Local 522 went on a fund-raising mission. The institute was dedicated on Dec. 21, 1973.

“The community needed it because there were no hospital beds available for burn (treatment) at that time, and we firefighters needed it for ourselves, too,” said Haskell.

Though the institute has functioned as a “living memorial” to those who perished, its impact has extended beyond the city.

“The comprehensive burn care and advanced research we are doing is enhancing the quality of life for burn survivors throughout the world,” said Dr. David Greenhalgh, chief of staff for burn surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California and chief of the burn division at neighboring UC Davis Medical Center.

“We are a charitable institution that works closely with Shriners Hospitals for Children and UC Davis Medical Center,” said Jim Doucette, executive director of the institute. “We fund a lot of the continuing education and medical research for the staffs of both hospitals. Also, we have camps for burn-survival children, and a support group and retreat for adult burn survivors.”

In its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board’s formal report blamed the crash on “inadequate pilot proficiency in the aircraft,” citing Bingham’s lack of training in an older plane and his unfamiliarity with Executive Airport.

The report also cited the shortness of Runway 30 and suggested the airport's cluttered environment “could result in a sense of urgency about becoming airborne as soon as possible.”

Bingham is 77 now and lives in Shasta County. Like everyone else associated with the Farrell's crash, Bingham has lived with the tragedy every day for 40 years.

Reached by phone at his home and offered the opportunity to express himself, Bingham said, “It doesn't make me feel any better at all to talk about it. I would just as soon decline that.”