TASSAJARA VALLEY -- The story of Pacific Airlines Flight 773 is a nearly forgotten chapter in the annals of senseless airplane tragedies.
But 50 years ago, the serene sloping hills of the Tassajara Valley were the scene of the first commercial airliner crash of its kind -- one that forced aviation safety reforms.
On May 7, 1964, Flight 773, a "gambler's special" flight from Reno to San Francisco via Stockton, took a nose-dive into the hills from 5,000 feet. The Fairchild F27A turboprop airliner hit with a thunderous crash some described as "a sonic boom," erupting into a ball of fire and an enormous plume of smoke that could be seen for miles. It left 44 people dead.
Investigators, FBI agents, police and press all descended upon the grassy dunes, combing through the shredded metal and human remains for clues to what caused the crash. The sleepy hamlet of Danville became the center of operations for the flight recovery and investigation efforts -- a place where loved ones came to claim the bodies that filled a makeshift morgue at the Village Theater.
"It was just a big boom ... and we'd never seen anything like that ever, in our nice, little, quiet community," said Gordon Rasmussen, a rancher who heard the crash that day. "It was horrific."
The handgun changed everything
It would take three days for an essential key to the mystery to be found -- a .357 magnum revolver, twisted and blackened from the fire, with six bullets still inside.
Francisco Paula Gonzales, 27, a member of the Philippines 1960 Olympics yachting team, reportedly had been depressed over marital and debt-related financial problems. He showed the revolver to numerous friends and told them he planned to shoot himself. He even told people they'd read about him in the papers around May 6 or 7. And on his final night in the casinos in Reno, he told a casino worker he didn't care how much money he lost because "it won't make any difference after tomorrow."
As the May 7 sun was rising, Gonzales shot both the pilot and co-pilot before turning the gun on himself. The plane plummeted to the ground, killing all on aboard.
Days later, the long and hard-to-understand message on the air traffic control tower's voice recording with the pilots was finally deciphered. Co-pilot First Officer Ray Andress, of Santa Clara, was heard saying, "Skipper's shot. We've been shot! Trying to help." And then more shots could be heard -- and then just static.
Legacy of a tragedy
Flight 773 made a lasting mark in aviation history as the first commercial flight during which the pilot was killed by a gunman, causing passengers to die in a crash, said Jerry Warren, board vice president of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville, who spent months researching the crash.
Back then, it seemed like an isolated incident, said Julie Clark, the daughter of pilot Ernie Clark and now an El Dorado County resident: "People just didn't kill people, go through cockpit doors and shoot people."
Flight 773 "did change a lot of things in the airline industry," said Judy Clark Grilli, Julie Clark's twin sister. In addition to Clark's Law (named after Ernie Clark), requiring cockpit doors on commercial flights be locked, Flight 773 prompted federal rules and legislation requiring that voice recorders be installed in the cockpit of all passenger aircraft, Warren said.
Grilli was 15 when her father's plane went down. She recalls being called out of her high school class before lunchtime; when she saw her sister Julie walking ahead of her in the hallway, they both knew something horrible had happened, she said. Their mother had died in an accident almost a year earlier, and they'd been called out of school in exactly the same way.
Exacerbating their pain was the rampant speculation, before the gun was recovered, that her father may have been at fault, said Julie Clark, who later became one of the first female pilots in the commercial aviation industry.
When she -- and the rest of the world -- found out that a lone gunman, a passenger, was responsible, "I thought 'hallelujah.' I was just happy, because I knew it wasn't (my dad's) fault," she recalled.
National focus on Danville
For days, the hills of the Tassajara Valley were marred by "the chaos" of the wreckage, recalled Gayle Montgomery, a former Oakland Tribune reporter and editor who covered the crash for three days.
"You'd find pieces of body ... and it wasn't pretty," he said. "And this was a gamblers' plane, so apparently everyone had brought back a deck of playing cards, which were scattered everywhere."
Nearby Danville -- then a town of some 13,000 people -- bustled during the recovery efforts.
Chuck Fereira was 17 and a senior at San Ramon Valley High School at the time. His mother was a beautician who also worked for the town mortician, Mel Whalin, helping prepare bodies for viewing. The enormity of the crash hit home three days later, when he and his father were anxiously waiting for his mother to come home and cook dinner. She arrived uncharacteristically late -- and uncharacteristically emotional, he said.
"Finally I remember my dad coming in and telling me then that the crash was caused by someone who had shot the pilots," he said. "And by that time, the town had really begun to comprehend the magnitude of what happened."
Fifty years later, Fereira calls the crash a defining local moment that ranked almost with President Kennedy's assassination.
"But even that, you watched on TV or talked about in church -- it wasn't in your backyard."
The 'raw emotion' lingers
Grilli and her sisters say they still miss their parents.
The crash also made orphans of Susan Gault and her siblings, whose parents Bob and Mona Gault, of Pacifica, were on the plane. Now a Grass Valley resident, Gault said she and her brothers were tormented by their parents' loss; one brother committed suicide and another led a reckless and troubled existence before he was severely injured in a sky-diving accident.
As for getting in an airplane now, Gault said, "I'll do it, but I cry. I seem to cry when I first take off on the trip. I mean I really cry like I think I'm going to die ... and then I'm OK."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.