Keeping a tragedy from fading

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2011 - 2:47 PM

A marker is planned to honor a 1950 Minneapolis plane crash and the 15 people who died.

It was a Tuesday night, and 15-year-old Diane Doughty had returned home after a high school basketball game. She put on her pajamas and settled onto the couch in the first floor sunroom of her family's home on W. Minnehaha Parkway in south Minneapolis.

Her parents, Franklin and Marie, were watching the Minneapolis Lakers basketball game on television. Her father had just come downstairs after tucking her younger sister and brother into bed.

Diane remembers her dad making a comment about one of the players. Her dog jumped onto her lap.

In the next instant, at 9:02 p.m. on March 7, 1950, everything changed.

A Northwest Orient Airlines twin-propeller plane nose-dived into the Doughtys' home after clipping a flagpole near the airport and aborting an attempt to land.

Diane and her parents escaped by diving out the windows just as the two-story stucco house was consumed in a fireball.

The crash killed the two younger children -- 10-year-old Janet and 8-year-old Tommy -- and the 10 passengers and three crew members on the plane.

It's the deadliest plane crash in city history.

For the past 61 years, Diane Doughty Madsen, who now lives in Elk River, has mostly kept those memories inside, not even saying much to her husband and children.

Shortly after the crash, "I remember my minister coming one day and talking to me for five minutes, but nobody ever talked to me and nobody wanted to bring it up," she said.

The fading of that night into history will be slowed next month when a boulder and memorial marker are installed on the popular parkway near the crash site, four blocks west of Lyndale Avenue.

"It was a big deal for the neighborhood," said Mark Kaplan, a former City Council member captivated by the story and led a fundraising push for the marker. "People alive then as kids in the neighborhood are now in their 70s and 80s, and won't be around several decades from now to tell the story."

Clipped flagpole near airport

When Flight 307 started from Washington, D.C., that day, Minneapolis was the fifth scheduled stop en route to Winnipeg.

Unlike today's nonstop cross-country trips, the plane stopped in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Madison, Wis. Then it was on to Rochester, but freezing rain prevented landing. So it headed to Minneapolis, where it was windy and snowing.

Flying in from the south toward Wold-Chamberlain Field's main runway, the pilot reportedly turned off his instruments on final approach and attempted a visual landing. Reports suggested that strong winds perhaps combined with pilot error brought the plane more than 200 yards west of the runway's center line. Its left wing clipped the top of a 70-foot flagpole at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Air traffic controllers aborted the landing and ordered the pilot to make a second attempt.

The plane swung west along Minnehaha Creek. As it banked steeply over the Washburn water tower, a wing fell off and crashed a few feet from its base.

The crippled plane continued for a half mile before it nose-dived with a roar.

"All of a sudden the house exploded," Doughty said this week. "I remember having this huge ball of fire in front of me."

She doesn't remember having time to think but dived through a window into the front yard, suffering cuts from glass and burns from the explosion.

Her parents followed. She thought her dog made it, too, but it perished.

Fire late into the night

Bob Christianson, then a sixth-grader, was two blocks away, listening to the Lakers game on the radio and remembers hearing a loud noise.

"I saw the plane come by our house and watched it crash into the Doughty house. I yelled to my parents, who were downstairs," he said. "The whole sky lit up, and there was a loud explosion."

Richfield's Floyd Roman was the first police officer at the scene, just behind firefighters who were jumping off their truck. He recalled seeing the fuselage and tail sticking out of the house in an "inferno."

He said he watched helplessly as "the plane from all the heat was melting down, and it disappeared entirely into the house."

A few blocks away at the Boulevard Theater, word spread that something big had happened, maybe a plane crash. Dick Erdahl, 17, and two friends rushed to the site, where emergency crews battled the fire and diverted traffic.

Erdahl went across the creek to his home on Humboldt Avenue. "I could see the fire from my bedroom window well into the night," he said.

Erdahl, who still lives in the house, often has thoughts of the crash. "If the plane had continued on its path another block or two, it could have landed on our house. That sticks in your mind."

Searching leads to memorial

Kaplan, who moved to the neighborhood later, heard snippets of stories about the crash. He tracked down former neighbors, searched for descendants of plane victims and decided to raise money for a memorial.

Kaplan raised about $3,500 for a memorial, including a 2 1/2-ton boulder with a cast aluminum plaque. The Park Board is expected to give final approval next week. It will be installed on park land across the street from the crash site.

Formal dedication is Aug. 27. Relatives of passengers who died have been invited.

A new one-story home, built at the crash site, bears the house number 1114 instead of the original 1116.

Kaplan's research eventually brought him to its only survivor.

'A good front' for her parents

Diane said she didn't talk about the crash afterward to avoid causing further grief for her parents, who moved into another home in south Minneapolis. She changed her goal of attending college in the East and stayed in the Midwest at her father's request. And she never got into trouble.

"I put up a good front for them," she said. "I was the only one left, and I didn't want them to have to think about making me feel good."

Although bad memories are brought up, Doughty said it feels good finally to talk about what happened, since counseling and therapy weren't the norm in 1950. She said she plans to attend next month's dedication.

Last week Doughty pulled out a box of old newspaper clippings and belongings of Janet and Tommy collected from their desks and lockers at the old Burroughs Elementary School. Her mother kept the box until she died in 1996. Doughty said she has looked only briefly at its contents a couple of times.

She removed a time capsule of her siblings' items: two pairs of small tennis shoes. A half-completed third-grade arithmetic workbook. A binder full of book reports and colored U.S. maps showing 48 states. Artwork on yellowing construction paper that hasn't been unfolded in decades. Nearly a dozen well-thumbed comic books such as "Cow Puncher" and "Looney Tunes" and "True Crime."

She opened a manila envelope stuffed with sympathy cards with three-cent postage stamps. She grew quiet as she shuffled through notes and letters from teachers, from Tommy's Cub Scout den, from relatives in New Jersey and even a hand-written one from the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team, with autographed photos of star players.

"People were so generous,'' she recalled. "We didn't have anything except the clothes on our backs."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388


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