'Lords Prayer 50 Times' - Four Firemen Survive Friday Night Mountain Plane Crash
LANCASTER - 4/18/71 - "If I said the Lord's Prayer" once, I must have said it 50 times."
So commented Glendale Fire Captain John Schmidt following a near disaster plane crash on fog shrouded Hauser Peak Friday afternoon, 15 miles southwest of Palmdale near Acton.
According to Captain Schmidt, a plane owned and piloted by Glendale Fireman John Tomasoff, took off from Whiteman Airport in Pacomia late Friday afternoon for a flight to Calexico.
On board, in addition to Tomasoff, were Schmidt 55; Captain Hubert Gallagher, 46; and Captain Harry Ellis, 50.
Schmidt stated the pass was clean as Tomasoff started through but suddenly a cloud bank settled, eliminating any vision.
At 3:10 PM a ridge on Hauser Peak looked up less than 100 feet in front of their plane, and Tomasoff, acting mostly on the split second reflexes of a skilled pilot, was able to "bank up" eliminating what would have been a fatal head-on crash.
Thus began an ordeal which none of the four fireman will ever forget.
Captain Ellis, despite a broken pelvis and two broken ribs, began a hike which covered eight miles in fog, light rain, and near-freezing conditions. Arriving at a residence on Sierra Highway, he notified authorities.
But, all was not over, as Ellis, despite his painful injuries, chose to lead Los Angeles County fireman back to the scene of the crash.
Unfortunately, weather conditions had worsened to a point where it was impossible even for Ellis to positively pinpoint the crash.
Fireman spent almost an hour reaching the scene, then an additional half-hours searching through blinding fog and rain before discovering the crash site.
Schmidt, the only coherent member left at the crash site cried for joy at the sight of the rescue party which consisted of 12 fireman from Stations 37, 80 and 81, under command of Battalion Chiefs Jim Harpel and Hiram Swallow, Deputy Sheriff Carl Kline, Wilson's Ambulance attendants Herb Wilson and John Stapp, and this reporter.
First words from Schmidt, still trying to restrain one of the incoherent injured were: "Thank god you're here, we'd have never lasted through the night."
Deputy Kline and this reporter used their coats to cover Schmidt and Gallagher, who were outside in the rain, until blankets and stretchers could be brought to the scene.
Schmidt, a first aid instructor, who had just lectured his class the night before on the value of treating for shock, had tied Tomasoff inside the plane's cockpit, then was forced to stay with Gallagher, ripping part of the plane's wing to make a level area for him to lie.
Late yesterday, both Tomasoff, the pilot, and Gallagher were listed in "very serious" condition by officials at Palmdale General Hospital.
Tomasoff's injuries included a fractured right shoulder, fractured right wrist, fractured right arm and concussion.
Gallagher was being treated for a concussion, multiple facial lacerations, and vertebrae fractures.
Schmidt and Ellis were reported in satisfactory condition.
Ellis suffered a fractured pelvis, rib fractures and possible vertebrae fracture; Schmidt fractured vertebrae, fractured wrist and multiple abrasions.
Date:April 16, 1971
Victim: #1 TOMASOFF, John - 40
#2 ELLIS, Harry -
#3 GALLAGHER, Hubert - 46
#4 SCHMIDT, John - 55
Location:3 miles north of 6531 Sierra Highway on fire access road
In response to the above aircraft crash call, Deputy Carl Kline, Unit 116 PM, arrived at the location with Los Angeles County Fire Department Companies 80 and 81 and Squad 37. At location Deputy Kline observed the wreckage of a small single engine airplane. (The aircraft, number N7398P, was later identified as a Piper Comanche, Model PA24, registered to The Frank Brislin Company of Compton, CA). Victims Gallagher and Schmidt were observed lying behind the bisected fuselage of the aircraft and Tomasoff was still seated in the left front pilot's seat. Deputy Kline also observed the cockpit of the aircraft to be entirely sheared away in the front and the wings to be broken at the fuselage. Deputy Kline assisted firemen in carrying all three Victims to the Fire Access Road where they were placed in an ambulance (Wilson's responded) and were transported to Palmdale General Hospital.
Deputy Kline waited at the location for the arrival of Earl Baxter, FAA representative, who was notified of the above at 2105, and escorted to the location by Sergeant Lyndle McConnell, Unit 110R.
Deputies Charles Poborsky and Jacob Maltsberger, interviewed Victim/Informant Ellis at Palmdale General Hospital about the circumstances surrounding the incident as follows:
Victim Ellis stated that at approximately 1450 this date he and Victims Tomasoff, Gallagher and Schmidt departed Whiteman Airpark , Pacomia, in route to Calexico via Fox Field, Lancaster. Victim Willis also stated that bad weather on the west coast forced them to take the alternate route via Fox Field. Ellis went on to say that after flying for approximately twenty minutes the plane became engulfed in a low fog bank and seconds thereafter hit a mountain. Ellis added that he saw the mountainside moments prior to impact since he was seated in the left rear seat of the aircraft, and the Pilot, Victim Tomasoff, who was seated in the left front seat, also saw the mountain and tried to avoid same by steering the aircraft into a climbing turn to the right. As a result the aircraft's underside struck the mountainside. Ellis further stated that Victim Gallagher, who was seated in the right front seat, was apparently thrown clear of the aircraft wreckage, and Victim Schmidt, who was seated in the right rear seat, helped bring him to the aircraft fuselage for shelter from the wind and rain. Ellis stated he covered Victim Tomasoff, who was still trapped in the left front seat of the wreckage, with a sweater in an effort to shield him from the rain and then proceeded to walk southbound on the Fire Access Road in search for help and finally arrived at 6559 West Sierra Highway, a residence, where he notified the Los Angeles County Fire Department of the crash. Ellis stated shortly thereafter the fireman arrived at the residence on Sierra Highway and he led them to within three miles of he wreckage and was then taken to Palmdale General Hospital by a Fire Department vehicle.
Carl Highgenboten, M.D., Staff Physician at Palmdale General Hospital, diagnosed the Victims' injuries as follows:
1. Victim Tomasoff, suffering from a broken right shoulder, broken right wrist, broken right ankle, multiple bruises and cuts.
2. Victim Gallagher, suffering from severe head and chest injuries, injured right hand, multiple cuts and bruises. Condition critical.
3. Victim Informant Ellis suffering two broken ribs and a broken pelvis.
4. Victim Schmidt, suffering injuries to the lower back, pelvis, and left arm , and multiple cuts and bruises.
Victim Tomasoff was unconscious., therefore, his pilot certificate number and heath certificate were unavailable at this time.
Sergeant Adams, Aero Bureau, notified of the above at 1805. Code 20 (press release-Ed.) released at 1832.
Due to the inclement weather, Unit 956A, Deputy Douglas Dickinson, AV Aero Detail, was unable to render assistance and returned to base at 1830.
Victims next of kin notified of the above by Palmdale General Hospital staff.
In October 1996, I contacted Eileen Tenorio, the resident of 6531 Sierra Highway in Acton, who summoned help for the plane crash victims, Tenorio, who was 13 at the time of the accident, vividly remembers that rainy day in April 1971 when she was contacted by Victim Ellis.
Tenorio's mother called and reported the incident to the LA County Fire Department. Tenorio told the Fire dispatcher that a plane crashed on Hauser Mountain and the dispatcher's initial response was "Yeah, there have been a lot of plane crashes on that mountain." Apparently the dispatcher didn't realize that another plane had crashed and the victims needed help immediately. After a brief discussion, the fire dispatcher finally realized that an accident had occurred and the victims were in dire need of help.
I asked Tenorio if she knew where the plane had crashed, but all she could remember was what Ellis had told her, "it was someone near Hauser Mountain." I obtained Pilot Tomasoff's phone number and contacted him. After a brief introduction Tomasoff agreed to tell me about the crash. Tomasoff related the following:
Tomasoff stated that he attempted to get a weather briefing three times before departing Whiteman Airpark. He said that his superiors from work (Captain's Gallagher, Ellis and Schmidt) were pressuring Tomasoff to take off. Tomasoff said that another plane departed Whiteman headed for Calexico via Lancaster, so Tomasoff decided to follow behind them. As soon as Tomasoff flew over the Sierra Pelona Mountains, north of Acton and west of Hauser Mountain, he became engulfed in fog. He recalled that Agua Dulce airport was directly behind him, and a short distance away, so he made a 180 degree turn in an effort to get out of the fog and land at Agua Dulce. Just as the plane was headed in the opposite direction Tomasoff suddenly was confronted by a large rock outcropping rising up from the mountainside and directly in front of him. Tomasoff pulled the nose up and purposefully stalled the aircraft in a successful effort to avoid hitting the mountain head on. The maneuver worked and the plane fell to the ground landing on it's underside. The impact caused the plane to break in two pieces just behind the pilot's seat. Tomasoff was knocked unconscious and doesn't remember any further details, other than waking up later at the Palmdale Hospital.
Tomasoff told me that passenger Ellis, who was suffering from two broken ribs and a broken pelvis, left the scene of the accident in search of help. Ellis walked down the mountainside from the crash site in a westerly direction for about a half-mile and then came upon a fork in the road. He chose to go to the left, which proved correct, had he gone right he would have walked for twenty miles without finding anyone. After a three mile hike down the mountainside, in heavy rain and fog, he finally reached the Tenorio's family farm house and summoned help. Remarkably, even though he was suffering enormous pain, Ellis waited for help to arrive and then guided rescuers to the crash site. As a result of Ellis' heroic actions, the lives of his friends were undoubtedly saved.
The wreck was removed shortly after the accident and all that remains of the Commanche are a few scattered parts that litter the hillside.
With the sketchy location given in the police report and the details provided by Tomasoff, I set out to find the remains of the plane. I was told by Tomasoff that the plane was removed shortly after the wreck and that nothing remained at the crash site. After an hour long search of the hillside I located a large rock outcropping about 65 feet away from a telephone company access road which was on the south side of the mountain. This location appeared to match the description where Tomasoff said he hit the mountain. I stopped my vehicle and looked around the rock outcropping and the surrounding area for any evidence of the plane. Within a short time, I located a piece of metal from the fuselage; broken windshield glass, a battery cover, and various pieces of engine parts and other aluminum parts from the Piper Commanche. Looking at the twisted metal it is incredible to me that all four victims survived this wreck. Fortunately for the actions of Tomasoff and Ellis this story has a happy ending. After recovering from their injuries all victims returned to their jobs with the Glendale Fire Department. Tomamsoff purchased a new plane, another Piper Commanche, and he still flies it to this day.