North Star Falling — Death rains from the sky over Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (Part 6)

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Normal life in Moose Jaw comes to full stop

The Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Edmonton Journal, and Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader-Post report the collision on the day of the crash. The Times-Herald published two editions on that day.

“Like a falling leaf”

Many witnesses saw both aircraft fall from the sky. One said that the North Star was like “a falling leaf”. Others saw bodies falling with the wreckage, which was scattered over a three-mile radius in the city’s northeast end.

Air crash investigators, who began their work almost immediately, estimated that eight seconds elapsed from the moment the Harvard and the North Star collided before the bulk of the wreckage had struck the ground.

The forward portion of the North Star’s fuselage fell directly on the home of Gordon and Betty Hume, where Martha Hadwen was working, missing Ross Public School and the 360 students inside by only 166 yards. The Hume residence was engulfed in flames. After the fire was extinguished, rescue workers discovered the 11 bodies of the North Star’s passengers and crew in the debris, as well as that of Martha Hadwen. The body of Capt. Bell was found still strapped in the pilot’s seat.

Most of the wreckage of the Harvard II fell on the nearby golf course, east of where the bulk of the North Star wreckage was found. Near the plane’s cockpit was the body of the Harvard pilot, AP/O Thorrat.

Among the debris that plummeted onto the streets of Moose Jaw were the North Star's four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. One was found in the backyard of the house where Martha Hadwen had died. Another had fallen off the plane during its descent, bouncing and rolling before coming to a stop on the city's main street. Much of the debris slammed into unpopulated recreation grounds adjacent to the city's northern residential area.

Above left: An aerial photo shows the area in the northeast part of Moose Jaw where most of the wreckage from the collision of the TCA North Star and the RCAF Harvard fell. In the left-hand photo, Ross Public School is near the centre at the top, the Hume residence at the lower right. In the right hand photo, debris from the collision litters a field; on the horizon at the right is Ross Public School. Images courtesy of the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery

The collision and its aftermath no doubt were etched in the memories of witnesses. James Leddy, a Moose Jaw radio newsman for station CHAB, filed a story that ran in the Vancouver Sun newspaper on the day of the tragedy. He wrote:

It is a terrible tragedy that all of those people died, but it could have been a hundred times worse. That plane could have hit Ross School. If it had we’d be counting the dead in hundreds.

The spot where the TCA plane fell is quite densely populated, houses very close together and all made of wood.

Some of the children discovered bodies before they were led away by teachers and sent home. The little ones were at recess at the time.

One little boy ran around almost hysterical, screaming “It was a ball of fire, a ball of fire.”

Newspaper reports are not necessarily accurate, of course. Leddy wrote, “They say the pilot of the Harvard tried to ride the plane down to an emergency landing on the golf course.” The subsequent investigation showed, of course, that that was a virtual impossibility.

Mrs. Murray Brown, whose home was just one door north of the Hume residence, offered a statement during the crash investigation. She was in bed when she heard “a series of small explosions… I got up and walked to the back door. When I got there I saw part of the house next door [the Hume residence] going past in flames and smoke.” Mrs. Brown continued:

I thought the end of the world had come and looking south all I could see was smoke where the back part of the house next door used to be. I did not know there had been an aeroplane crash. I then went to the front and noticed a lot of rags lying around the street. They turned out to be bodies.1

Three Crash Investigations

Investigations of the crash of TCA Flight 9 and the RCAF Harvard were carried out by the RCAF, Trans-Canada Airlines, and the Canadian Board of Transport.

Lorne Silverson, manager of the Moose Jaw Marble & Granite Company, witnessed the tragedy and testified at the RCAF’s Board of Inquiry:

I was watching the workmen unload a truck-load of cement when I heard the muffled explosion like the beating of a base drum. I looked up and saw the fuselage and one wing and two engines of an aircraft. The wing was pointed earthward and the fuselage was horizontal. To the east of it, there were fragments of all sorts beginning to drift down in all directions. I could see sheets of what was apparently aluminum (bright & shiny). I turned and went in to phone the police. It was ringing the busy signal. I went back out again and realized that the main part of the wreck was going to come down close to my home. I got into my car and drove home. When I arrived there, I saw that the Hume residence was a mass of flames.

Newspaper photos of the aftermath of the collision between the TCA North Star and the RCAF Harvard: At the left, wreckage of one of the North Star’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that fell onto Main Street in Moose Jaw; at the right, the Hume residence engulfed in flames. Images courtesy of the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery

Fireman Charles (Slim) Debolt was sitting in his truck at 771 Stadacona West at the time of the collision on April 8, 1954. He testified at the Trans-Canada Air Lines investigation:

Around ten o'clock in the morning Dick Graham and I were sitting in my truck, which was parked in front of 771 Stadacona Street West, when Red Stafford called out and pointed up in the sky. I got out of the truck and saw a large plane. I noticed a puff of smoke and then flames coming out of the rear of the plane. I also saw a smaller plane a short distance of the big plane. I could not swear this was a smaller plane - it could have been a piece of the big plane. The big plane started to fall and pieces were falling off it. We then got into the truck and started to drive to where we thought the plane would fall. When we arrived at the scene, one house was a mass of flames and the plane was on it. A house on either side of this one was also burning.

Harold Braaten was a foreman for Bird Construction. He also testified at the TCA investigation:

It was around ten o'clock in the morning and I was outside our office on 7th Avenue. I happened to glance up in the sky and saw a big North Star plane flying west. I guessed it was around 5,000 feet. I also saw a Harvard plane about 200 to 300 feet southwest and it was flying in a northeast direction. I could not tell if the Harvard was higher than the North Star. I then turned away and about a second or so later I heard a loud noise and then saw a flash. I glanced up in the sky again and the Harvard looked as though it had torn the far motor off the left wing of the North Star. The nose of the North Star then dipped and some things were falling out. Then she started flaming. The right wing then fell off and the plane tipped over on its left side and fell to the ground.

What caused the collision?

The Canadian Board of Transport enquiry determined the following causes of the collision between Trans-Canada Airlines Flight 9 and the RCAF Harvard:

• Failure on the part of the pilots of both aircraft to maintain a proper lookout, the onus of responsibility for keeping out of the way being with the Harvard aircraft as it had the other on its own right side.

• The Harvard aircraft in crossing the airway climbed through altitudes normally used by aircraft flying along the airway.

• The Board, up to the present, has been unable to determine whether the window post on the left side of the Canadair C4-1 aircraft hid the Harvard aircraft from view, but there are indications that this was possible.

The Board of Inquiry noted that it believed that the pilots of the North Star should have been able to see the Harvard as it approached. “The Harvard would likely have presented a full keel surface of brilliant yellow to the pilots of the North Star.

Several changes occurred as a result of the Moose Jaw collision:

A modern postcard shows a vintage Harvard trainer flown by a Western Airbirds pilot at the semi-annual airshow at Canadian Forces Base Comox on Vancouver Island.

• Green airway was moved several miles north of Moose Jaw so that airliners would never again overfly the community.

• New flight regulations stipulated different cruising altitudes for aircraft flying in opposite directions, and ordered aircraft crossing commercial airways do so at intermediate altitudes.

• RCAF Station Moose Jaw moved its flying routes south of the city, and no longer planned navigation exercises north of the city.

Charges and countercharges of unsafe flying practices were made by military and civil authorities. Especially odious to the RCAF were unsubstantiated charges that its pilots were engaging in dangerous maneuvers near North Star airliners. However, despite the steps taken to “ensure” that there was never a repeat of the Moose Jaw tragedy, two more near collisions between RCAF Harvard trainers and TCA North Stars occurred near Moose Jaw in 1955.

Next, in Part 7: Recovery and identification of bodies take precedence, but efforts to recover and forward mail begin immediately. The “crash mail” that the tragedy generated reveals much about the violence of the collision and the efficiency of the Canadian Post Office Department.

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  1. Quoted in Mid-Air Moose Jaw, by Larry Shaak