Memories of 1948 NWA crash linger near Winona

By Chris Hubbuch , Associated Press

August 27, 2008


FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. — The deadliest day in area history started out like any August Sunday. The country was baking under a heat wave. Highs had been in the 90s all week, just the thing for county fairs and drying corn in the field. The state fairs were under way in St. Paul and Milwaukee.

In La Crosse, 1,500 fans watched Heileman's Lagers pound Winona 11-0 to sweep the weekend softball series. Three thousand people gathered on the Mississippi River to watch motorboat races. Aquinas and Logan football players got ready to start training for their season openers. The concert band played its last show of the summer in Myrick Park.

As the day wore on, a storm brewed.

In Chicago on that Aug. 29, Northwest Airlines flight 421 took off at 3:50 p.m. with 34 passengers headed to Minneapolis.

The captain was Robert Johnson, a 30-year-old South Dakota native. Like his co-pilot, David Brenner, he had joined Northwest in the early 1940s and had served as a civilian pilot during the war. Their hostess was a 26-year-old nurse, Mary Ungs, who had joined the airline after serving in the Army.

They flew in a new Martin 2-0-2, a fast, "ultramodern" twin-engine plane designed to replace the DC-3, the commercial airlines' workhorse since the mid-1930s. They would have enjoyed luxuries like "cloud-soft seats," reading lights and air conditioning.

None could have known that the plane, in service for barely a year, was doomed.

At 4:55 p.m., cruising at 8,000 feet, Flight 421 passed over La Crosse. On a clear day, David Brenner could have looked down on his parents' Cass Street home.

The 27-year-old co-pilot had grown up there at the base of Grandad Bluff, building hundreds of model planes out of balsa wood, paper and a homemade banana oil. As a teenager, he washed planes and sold rides for Fanta-Reed air service to earn money for flying lessons. He earned his private pilot's license at 17 and his commercial license a year later.

In college, he met Jacqueline Argall. After class, he would take her up in an open-cockpit Stearman biplane, and in 1942 they were married.

Brenner joined Northwest in 1943 and flew mail and supply routes to Alaska. During the war, he trained Army glider pilots for the D-Day invasion.

Ungs, from Dyersville, Iowa, had studied at St. Francis school of nursing in La Crosse and worked for three months at the hospital before joining the Army nursing corps and serving in the Pacific.

As they passed over the city, the crew pointed the plane to the northwest and were cleared to begin their descent to Minneapolis.

Four minutes later, they radioed to report passing through 7,000 feet. They gave no indication of trouble.

It was the last transmission from the flight.

About the same time, people in Winona, Minn., were watching a storm roll in from the northwest. Earl Schreiber and his father stepped outside their home on West Howard Street to check the sky and saw a plane flying below the clouds. Earl was 18, getting ready to start his freshman year at Winona State Teacher's College.

"There was a bad storm, a frightening storm," he said.

Others reported seeing the plane fly into the storm cloud.

Then things began falling from the sky.

Aluminum parts. A blue blanket. A pillow. A wallet belonging to J. W. Tinkers of Philadelphia. C.A. Carlson's hat.

Winona patrolman Ed Hittner was in his squad car at the corner of Third and Main when his radio crackled with a call about a downed plane. He was driving for Detective Tony Kamla, and they had a rookie officer in the back seat.

Hittner retired in 1964 as assistant chief. Now 91, he has lived in McAllen, Texas for 30 years, but he remembers every detail of the day.

The officers headed over the bridge into Wisconsin. A mile or so north on Hwy. 35, near Lock and Dam 5A, they saw a wing in the marsh. Hittner, a pilot himself, waded into the waist-deep water.

Hittner had a friend flying in from Denver in a BT-13 military trainer, and feared that was what he'd find. But he saw it was flush riveted and knew it was from a bigger, high speed plane.

Jack Volkel, a Northwest Airlines pilot who was in Winona between flights, pulled up, and Hittner showed him a piece of metal. Inside was stamped Martin 2-0-2.

"He just turned white," Hittner said.

Volkel went to call the airline to see if any flights were missing. The officers headed up the wooded, muddy hillside and began finding bodies.

Gary Schlosstein was a 20-year-old college student living at home in Cochrane for the summer.

His father, the Buffalo County district attorney, got a call about a plane crash and invited Gary to ride along. Near the Midway tavern, a police officer pointed them toward a fragment of the plane's tail.

"We knew then for sure it was not a Piper Cub," Schlosstein said.

The fuselage was on a steep slope about 50 yards down the ravine on John and Merton Sutter's farm. The tail came down near the top of another ridge. Other parts of the plane were strewn over a debris field nearly two miles long.

It was soon clear there were no survivors, although many recount the discovery Monday morning of a priest, still strapped in his seat and apparently unscratched. Some even speculated that he had lived through the night.

Schlosstein and his father stayed until the early morning as rescuers used ropes and baskets to recover the victims from the ravine.

He watched as a horse-drawn farm wagon creaked down the hillside with a load of bodies, an image the retired circuit court judge said he will never forget.

Alton Semling lived on a farm about two miles away. He remembers the storm, and then seeing lots of cars zooming by, so he drove over to see what was happening and found himself put to work.

"When you're 19, you're eager to get a look," he said.

The rescuers had formed a chain, passing stretchers up the hillside. A neighboring farmer had a Dodge Power Wagon with a winch they used to pull some of the wreckage apart. Semling remembers helping move one piece.

"It was a mess," he said. "More than this little boy could handle."

As the bodies were hauled out, they were placed on trucks and taken to the Fountain City auditorium, which served as a makeshift morgue, where relatives soon assembled to help identify and claim the victims.

Among those young people called in to help was John Breitlow, who was the son of a Winona mortician.

"That was sort of my introduction to the profession," said Breitlow, 76, who later worked in the funeral business for about a decade before becoming a college professor.

"I guess I didn't find it shocking," he said. "It was a not very pleasant job that had to be done. It was an emergency and I think we responded in an emergency manner."

News accounts at the time estimated the crash drew as many as 20,000 people. The crushed rock road was packed hard as concrete, said Willis Stuber, who worked as a hired hand on a nearby farm.

Rumors spread of looting, but there were no arrests. Most, it seemed, just wanted a glimpse of something extraordinary.

Earl Schreiber, who had seen the doomed plane pass over Winona, heard the news on the radio.

"I said, 'Dad, let's go over there and see what's happening,'" the retired schoolteacher from Ceylon, Minn., said.

They drove up on the ridge and skirted the guards as they walked into the ravine. They saw bodies, and parts of a plane.

"It was quite a shaking thing for both my dad and me," Schreiber said. "I think we were pretty quiet when we drove home."

The death toll doesn't come close to that of modern jumbo jet crashes, but at the time Flight 421 was the worst disaster in Northwest's 22-year history, and the first on its Chicago-Twin Cities route.

Many at the time speculated the plane had been struck by lightning. They wouldn't learn what had happened until the following summer, when the Civil Aeronautics Board released its accident investigation report.

The cause was a design flaw.

After the plane entered the storm, the left wing tip, weakened by a hairline crack, snapped under the force of the wind. As it broke free, the wing clipped the rear stabilizer, tearing off the tail section. The plane, now uncontrollable, continued on its northeast trajectory, breaking apart in the air.

A second Martin that had flown through the same storm just an hour after Flight 421 was later found to have a fatigue crack in its wing support joint.

The finding doomed the 2-0-2's future.

Martin agreed to rebuild the wings of Northwest's remaining fleet, but in spite of the company's creative marketing efforts, new orders evaporated.

"They were no damn good," Brenner's widow, Jacqueline, said of the 2-0-2. "Dave said after he tried it out it was like a flying boxcar."

There is no marker or memorial to the 37 people who died on Sutter Ridge, but six decades later, the hillside still coughs up pieces of the wreckage.

After the victims were removed and investigators finished combing through the wreckage, the bulk of the debris was piled onto wagons and hauled up the hill. It was sold to a Winona scrap dealer, according to reports at the time.

But much was left behind.

The plane's aluminum stairs — with bent railings but otherwise intact — sit in a field on the Sutter farm, and part of the tail sat for years in a shed.

"That's not all that unusual," especially given the time and the location, said Bill Waldock, an air crash investigator and professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

Federal officials take what they need for their investigation, and the rest is left for the airline or its insurer. In rugged terrain where extraction is difficult, wreckage is often left behind, Waldock said.

Mary Aus and her husband, Michael, now live in a new house on the farm. Neither was born when the plane crashed, but the event has infused their memories.

Mary, Merton Sutter's daughter, remembers playing on the plane's stairs as a young girl.

Michael sometimes explores the ravine, where he has found pieces of the plane — a red cockpit warning light, bits of Plexiglass windows, the shard of a plastic plate stamped with the Northwest logo — and luggage.

A few years ago, he was hunting in the ravine when he found a jagged chunk of aluminum, about a foot square. He donated it to the Fountain City Area Historical Society, where it sits in a glass display case.

A spot of blood stains the olive green paint.


Information from: La Crosse Tribune,