It’s a beautiful brown-brick ranch house on High Street in Bressler, Swatara Township; more modern than most of its neighbors.
The Dauphin County neighborhood sits in the flight path of Capitol City Airport, just across the river in New Cumberland.
“Planes go over here all the time, but they always stay in the air. They don’t come down,” Ron Huggins said with a laugh.
But Huggins knows better than most that’s not true. He’s lived on High Street for 60 years. He will never forget February 24, 1977.
“The siren went off and they said a plane crash,” remembered Huggins, who was the assistant fire chief for the Bressler Volunteer Fire Department 40 years ago. The call for help directed him to his own block, which never happened before and hasn’t happened since.
“When we got down here, everything was on fire,” Huggins recalled.
Don Sarvey returned to High Street this week.
“This whole area where we’re standing right now was just covered with debris, metal shards and body parts,” said Sarvey, who was a reporter for the Evening News and one of the first on the scene.
“The crash pretty much split the house in two,” Sarvey said.
The house was destroyed and it’s been replaced by the newer looking brown-brick ranch. A woman who lived there, Beverly Geary, was killed when the plane skipped through the backside of her house. All eight people on the plane died, including PennDOT Secretary William Sherlock and state Senator Richard Frame. The PennDOT officials were attempting to deliver a check for a transportation project to Elk County. They never made it.
Sarvey was invited into a home across the street from Geary’s house to use a landline and file his report to the newspaper.
“I’m on the phone, phoning in my story, and what I’m staring at through their front window was a body on the front lawn,” Sarvey said.
Bruce Smith was 19 years old, a freshman at Penn State and asleep at his parents’ house in Hershey. His mother shortened his slumber by shaking him awake.
“I think Dad’s been in a plane crash,” Smith remembers his mother telling him. “My reaction was, what’s he doing in a plane?”
Bruce’s dad, William Smith, was Sherlock’s chief of staff at PennDOT. He was a military pilot for 30 years through three wars. He even flew missions in World War II with movie star Clark Gable. The irony is not lost on Bruce.
“He’s flying B-17’s out of England and doing bombing runs and getting shot at and flak,” Bruce Smith said of his dad. “And he gets on a small plane and crashes? It’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense.”
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation. It concluded the crash was “not survivable.” It also determined that the crash was caused because the weight was not properly distributed, which caused the plane to fail. In layman’s terms, there was too much weight in the back and not enough in the front. The Dauphin County neighborhood was disrupted, but that’s mostly forgotten now, except by people who were there.
“The day of the crash and being here, that image is imprinted in my memory,” Sarvey said.
William Smith, the war hero, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He would’ve turned 100 last week on Feb. 17. The 40th anniversary of his death was Feb. 24.
To mark those milestones, his family laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Feb. 23.
At the State Archives, there is a box of crash-related artifacts including Gov. Milton Shapp’s eulogy, a program from the memorial service and hand-written condolences he sent to the families.
At the Keystone Building, there’s a plaque with the names of all nine victims including PennDOT staffers Charles Wilson of Hershey; Larry Pennsyl of Elysburg; John Krebs of New Cumberland, and pilots David Wolf of Carlisle and Edward Soisson of New Cumberland.
But nine names in bronze doesn’t quite capture the fallout from that plane falling from the sky.
The impact was much greater.
“I think what always gets me is I have two daughters and my two daughters never got a chance to meet their grandfather,” Bruce Smith said.
Numerous other granddaughters and grandsons, fathers and mothers, siblings and friends also had their lives torn asunder 40 years ago. What is mostly a footnote in history for most of us, is so much more to them.