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Plane crashes during Century 21 opening day festivities on April 21, 1962.
HistoryLink.org Essay 723
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On April 21, 1962, an Air Force F102 airplane – part of a squadron performing at opening day ceremonies for the Seattle World's Fair -- crashes into two homes in a Mountlake Terrace neighborhood (now part of Shoreline.) One home is empty – its owners are on vacation -- but the second
home's occupants are killed instantly.
Death From Above
The opening ceremonies began at the World's Fair shortly
before noon, when President John F. Kennedy pressed a telegraph key from his
vacation home in Florida. As the Space Needle Carillon's bells clanged out, a
squadron of 10 Air Force F102s roared overhead. When the planes came around for a second
flyby, few in the audience noticed that there were now only nine.
During its second pass, one of the planes, piloted by
Captain Joseph Wildt (1929-1977), flamed out at 1,500 feet and after two
attempts to restart the engine, the pilot knew he had to bail out. Wildt set
the controls so that the plane would ditch into Lake Washington, but his
ejection altered the plane’s course, sending it three miles farther than he
intended, straight into a neighborhood just south of the Snohomish County
The first house the jet slammed into was owned by Alexander
Rutka (1922-1986), who was on vacation with his wife and their four children.
The plane, now on fire and carrying remains of the Rutka house,
piled into another home across the street and exploded. Inside were Raymond
Smith (1894-1962) and his wife, Lillian (1899-1962), who were killed instantly.
Five nearby homes were also damaged.
The Lucky Ones
The tragedy could have been far more severe. The
neighborhood children often played on that street, and enjoyed a clubhouse that
was built in one of the now-destroyed trees. Frederick Haines, one of the
parents, had taken a group of youngsters to go see the movie Pinocchio, and some of the other boys
and girls were enjoying an Easter egg hunt at a nearby church.
But some children were still around. Next door to the Smith
house, Mrs. Frederick Haines was watching the World's Fair ceremonies on
television when the plane hit, sending debris into her house and lighting the
curtains on fire. Running outside to grab a garden hose to douse the flames,
she found 3-year-old Jerry Andrews lying on her lawn. The neighbor boy was
unhurt, but too shocked to cry.
The Story Unfolds
News of the crash reached the fairgrounds just as fair
officials and their guests were finishing their lunch in the Eye of the Needle
restaurant, high atop the Space Needle. Information was spotty at first. News of
the pilot's rescue by Lake Washington boaters brought relief, but when it was
announced that two people had been killed at the crash site, an agonized wail
came from the crowd.
In Mountlake Terrace, Air Force officials began an
investigation almost immediately, setting up tight security as they gathered up
pieces of plane wreckage. An engine was found smoldering in a tree behind the
Smith house, and shards of metal were strewn all over the neighborhood. An Air
Force security officer asked that no pictures be taken because the planes were
classified, but that didn't stop the press and a few camera-toting onlookers
from snapping a few shots.
Meanwhile, in British Columbia, Alexander and Katharina
Rutka (1928-1993) were visiting family with their four children -- Karl (b.
1950), Karleen (b. 1952), Karen (b. 1959), and Kimberly (b. 1961). While eating
lunch, the phone rang. Mr. Rutka answered the call, and heard the terrible news
that his house was destroyed and that his neighbors across the street were
dead. He dropped the receiver and collapsed to the floor.
Fifty years after the crash, Karl Rutka and Karleen Rutka Goodwin told MLTnews -- a
community news site for Mountlake terrace -- that their parent were never fairly
recompensed by the government over the
loss of their home, and only received $2,000 to $3,000 settlement for everything.
The loss of the dream home took a toll
on their parents' health, and both mother and father died in their early 60s.
"Home Burns After Jet Crash," The Seattle Times, April 21, 1962, p. 1; "Disabled Jet Hits
Homes Here; 2 Die," Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1962, p. 1; "Pall Falls on Officials at
Sad News," Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1962, p. 1; "Pilot Tried Desperately to Avert Crash," The Seattle Times, April 22, 1962, p. 1; "Death Missed Lone Woman by a Few Feet," The Seattle Times, April 22, 1962, p. 1; "Coincidences Saved Children," The Seattle Times, April 22, 1962, p. A; "Armed Airmen Enforce Tight Security at Scene of Crash," The Seattle Times, April 22, 1962, p. A; "'Luckiest Guy' Says Crashing Jet Missed
Him by 20 Feet," The Seattle Times,
April 22, 1962, p. 1; "AF Aid Explains Jet Crash Cause," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21,
1962, p. 1; "Pilot of Crashed Jet Obeyed Orders," The Seattle Times, April 23, 1962, p. 10;
"Family Told of Plane Hitting Home," The Seattle Times, April 23, 1962, p. 10; "Family Away When Jet Hits Home Plans to Build Anew," The
Seattle Times, April 23, 1962, p. 10; "Crash Pilot Tells of Desperate Try to Dive Plane Into Lake," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1962, p. 1; "50 Years Later, Family still Looking for Closure Following Seattle World’s Fair Tragedy, " MLTnews website accessed May 23, 2012 (http://mltnews.com/).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.
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Site of Air Force F102 crash following World's Fair opening day ceremonies, Mountlake Terrace, April 21, 1962
Courtesy MOHAI (No. 19188.8.131.52)