Seventy years ago, on 28 January 1948, a DC-3 caught fire and crashed in rough terrain in Southern California, killing all 32 aboard. The flight was taking 28 Mexican farm workers whose work permits had expired, or who were illegal immigrants, to the border town of El Centro for deportation.
The immediate cause of the tragedy was an intense fire in the aircraft’s left wing. The then Civil Aeronautics Authority later determined that the fire was sparked after fuel leaked from faulty separating gasket in the left engine fuel pump. The fire burnt through the wing, which separated in flight. Nine people fell from the stricken aircraft, which then spiralled into the ground at Los Gatos Canyon, on the San Andreas Fault.
The crash was horrific, but so too was the attitude of those concerned with the planning and operation of the flight.
Motivated by what he considered a callous attitude towards the mostly Mexican victims who were often referred to in the media as ‘just deportees’, songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote a poem shortly after the crash. A decade later it was set to music by schoolteacher Martin Hoffman as Plane Wreck at Los Gatos, though it’s also known as Deportee. The song has been performed extensively by Guthrie’s son Arlo and, with various titles, covered by artists from Joan Baez to Bruce Springsteen.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’.
From Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Martin Hoffman. © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI).
The DC-3 was chartered by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from Airline Transport Carriers in Burbank. The owners had previously operated the unfortunately named Fireball Air Lines.
For reasons which are unclear, the pilots took the wrong aircraft on that fateful day. They were supposed to be flying a DC-3 certified for 32 passengers. Instead, they took one configured for only 26 passengers and which was overdue by seven flight hours for a mandatory safety inspection.
The pilots, both of whom had flown in World War II, ferried the aircraft to Oakland, where the 28 passengers and their INS guard boarded. The aircraft also had one flight attendant—the wife of the captain. Because there weren’t enough seats, three of the passengers had to sit on luggage, and the aircraft exceeded its maximum take-off weight by about 30 kilos.
While the overloading and lack of seats probably had no direct bearing on the tragedy which followed, it was, as one account puts it, ‘a clue into the state of mind of the pilot and flight crew’.
About 90 minutes after leaving Oakland, workers at a road camp observed the DC-3 at an estimated altitude of 5,000 ft above ground with a white trail coming from the left engine.
At first, only 12 of the victims were identified, and the remains of the deportees placed in a mass grave, marked only as Mexican Nationals, in the city of Fresno, about 100 km from the crash site.
The US Government denied liability, but the charter company was insured for more than the $US100,000 then required by law and was able to continue operations before declaring bankruptcy in 1953.
It was only 65 years after the crash, in 2013, that Guthrie was finally vindicated when a monument with the names of all the victims was unveiled, after a year of research by a local writer. The Los Angeles Times reported that the $14,000 for the monument was raised mainly from small donations.
Seventy years on, some of the themes of Guthrie’s poem, such as the plight of illegal immigrants, continue to resonate. Air travel today is much different and safer than 70 years ago, but we should never forget the lessons of the Los Gatos Canyon disaster, such as the need for proper planning, maintenance standards and respect for people.