April 4, 1991: The Merion Air Disaster



WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


On April 4, 1991, a small airplane collided mid-air with a helicopter over top of Merion Elementary School, a suburb northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The airplane had 2 crew members and was carrying just 1 passenger, United States Senator John Heinz. The helicopter had only 2 people on-board, both crew members. All 5 people on both aircraft were killed. In addition, 2 school children were killed by falling debris from the accident.


Upon investigation, the cause of the accident was determined to be poor judgement and pilot errors from both aircraft.

THE CRASH


The airplane, a Piper Aerostar propeller-driven plane departed from Williamsport Regional Airport in Pennsylvania at around 11:25 AM. Senator Heinz was in the area for a press conference. He rented the Piper Aerostar from Lyncoming Air, and he took off with his 2 pilots to Philadelphia. (1)


As the airplane neared final approach into Philadelphia, the pilot, Richard Shreck, noticed that there was a mechanical issue: The nose landing gear locked indicator was not illuminated, as it should have been. He entered a holding pattern just north of the airport. Shreck and the other pilot began trying to troubleshoot the problem, while alerting air traffic control of the issue. (1)


A nearby Sun Oil Company Bell 412 helicopter was called and enlisted to help identify if the gear was down and locked. The crew in the helicopter couldn't identify the condition of the landing gear from the safe, recommended distance, so it moved closer to the plane for a better look. (This seems like an absolutely terrible idea.) (1)


In an effort to move closer together, at 12:10 PM, the 2 aircraft collided over a local elementary school, the helicopter's rotor clipping the left wing of the plane. The helicopter spun out and the plane dove into the ground, disintegrating on impact on the grounds of the elementary school. (1)


2 schoolgirls were killed, and 5 others were injured by the debris which fell in a 250-yard radius around the school. (1)


Journalist Susan Greenspon remembers the day vividly. This wasn't something that news slowly broke of throughout the day. An airplane and helicopter fall out of the sky into the grounds of the elementary school. People knew immediately. Greespon, in an article 25 years after the disaster, said she can still remember parents leaving their cars on the grass or sidewalks, front doors left open, running to the school, hoping their children were okay. (2)


At the scene, chaos was abound. Children were running, screaming for their lives. A ball of fire had just landed so close to their school, the 5 people collectively on board dead instantly. (2)


Unfortunately, 2 sets of parents weren't among the lucky ones who found and embraced their children, their worst nightmares quelled once their child was in their arms. 2 6-year-old first graders, Lauren Freundlich and Rachel Blum, were killed by the falling debris. Among the injured was 7-year-old David Rutenberg, whose clothes caught on fire, the school custodian and his teacher trying to smother the flames. He was burned on over 68% of his body. (2)


While the press gathered outside, both because of the terrifying scene, but also because a Senator was involved, the children were returned to their homeroom classes in attempt to identify missing children. Had the crash occurred 15 minutes earlier, 400 students would have been on the playground for recess. But even at the time it occurred, many more children could have been in danger. Vietnamese school volunteer Tho Oldham helped herd children out of harm's way as soon as she heard the helicopter. The muscle memory she had from living in Vietnam saved many, many children. (2)

THE VICTIMS


Lauren Freundlich was the daughter of a professor, and an "enormous" amount of colleagues came to the funeral for Lauren. The medical school established a fund in Lauren's name, and her father said that the turnout was a "terrific help" to his family while went through such a horrific, unimaginable loss. Lauren was praised during her funeral as an exceptional child who loved school and lived her little life to the fullest. (3)


At Rachel Blum's funeral, the other 6-year-old girl who was killed, her father asked mourners to "take a deeper look at all of our children, because tomorrow it could all be gone". Both girls' desks were adorned with flowers once the other children went back to school. (4)


The most famous victim of the crash was Senator John Heinz, a popular Republican senator who was known for hopping between small-town gatherings. According to long-time friend and fellow senator, Tim Worth, "he really believed he could make the world a better place". His son, Andre, spoke at his funeral, saying he was grateful for the time they had together, and that he missed and loved him. (5)


The 2 pilots on Heinz's plane, Richard Shreck of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, and Trond Stegen of Hughesville, Pennsylvania, were also killed immediately. Besides reports and investigations showing that errors they made may have been a cause of the crash, there is not much information about them. (1)


One of the helicopter pilots, Michael Pozzani, was well-loved in his community, and hundreds gathered to mourn his death. The Reverend and family members at the funeral spoke about his beautiful love with his wife, his "fulfillment to the law of Christ", and his ever-desire to help people. (6)


His co-pilot, Charles Burke, was one of those people he helped. Having worked at Sun Oil Co for years, he helped Burke to get a job there, and they became great friends, the helping nature of both of them leading them to check on the airplane that ultimately cost them their lives. (6)


This story is a really, really wild one. From beginning to end, every single element could have made a front-page story. A plane crash is a story. The death of a senator is a story. A freak accident that leads to the death of children is a story. But due to a perfect storm of events, all 3 of things happened in one event: A plane crash that killed a senator and 2 schoolchildren. And what is often left out of the story is that 4 other men, the pilots of both the plane and helicopter, were killed, as well.


According to Greenspon, the day was still as vivid in her head in 2016, 25 years later, as it was the day of. She finished her story saying "25 years later, the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead still manages to put me on high alert." (2)

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merion_air_disaster

2. https://www.mainlinemedianews.com/mainlinetimes/opinion/as-i-see-it-merion-school-catastrophe-still-vivid-years/article_62f2c18f-1686-5553-becd-9b65694d3b97.html

3.https://www.thedp.com/article/1991/04/profs_daugter_killed_in_merion_plane_crash_honored_at_service

4. https://apnews.com/962c59aa340ed192d4cbbc4bbc62c963

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Heinz

6. http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=655167

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