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Photos of Capt. Ernie Clark, the pilot of the ill-fated Pacific Air Lines flight 773 that crashed into a hillside off Camino Tassajara, are some of the items on display during the "Mystery in the Sky: The Crash of Flight 773" exhibit held at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Clark, and Co-pilot Ray Andress were shot by a suicidal passenger and killed while piloting a Fairchild F-27 from Reno to San Francisco, claiming the lives of 44 people just east of San Ramon on May 7, 1964. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

DANVILLE -- On the sloping hillside off Camino Tassajara where 44 people died in a violent and fiery plane crash nearly 50 years ago, no signs or memorials mark the scene of tragedy.

Instead, cattle still graze on the site, which appears to be untouched ranchland.

But on May 7, 1964, it was the site of calamity -- and it left a sorrowful legacy.

Just three miles east of Danville, Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 from Reno to San Francisco took a nose dive into the rolling hills. A massive plume of black smoke rising from the fiery blaze could be witnessed for miles around, leaving a mystery for FBI and Civil Aeronautics Board investigators to unravel.

The emotions from that 1964 tragedy still live on -- and run raw.

"It's a very, very sad thing that changed the lives of 44 people, and it's a domino effect," said Julie Clark, the daughter of Capt. Ernie Clark, who was flying the doomed plane. "This flight changed many, many lives."

It made orphans out of Julie Clark, who was then 15, and her two sisters, Sharon DeVos and Judy Grilli, who were 18 and 15. The sisters shared memories of that ill-fated flight during a talk by Clark on Wednesday night at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. It drew an audience of more than 50 people.

The flight was the first to have a pilot disabled in flight by a gunman. Never in the history of commercial aviation had a pilot been attacked in a similar manner in the air, Clark said.

A lone gunman, Francisco Paula Gonzales, 27, a former member of the Philippines sailing team in the 1960 Olympics who was distressed and disturbed over marital and financial troubles, went through the open door of the cockpit and shot both the pilot and co-pilot before turning the gun on himself. Crash investigators found Gonzales caused the plane to crash, killing all 44 aboard.

Clark recalled having press camped out on her family's front yard for a month, some initially suggesting that her father was guilty of the crash.

"The sad thing about our family is that we had just lost our mom -- just a year prior," said Clark, now 65.

Some theorized that her father was so despondent over his wife's death that he might have been responsible for the crash.

"It was the worst, most horrible thing I could ever dream of," she said.

When she found out the truth with the rest of the world, three days after the crash, she said: "I went, 'Hallelujah!' Because I knew it wasn't his fault."

Her sisters, during the talk, fought back tears, at times. "It doesn't feel like 50 years ago," said DeVos, of Medford, Ore. "It still brings up a lot of raw emotions."

Grilli, of Santa Clara, called the crash "traumatic," but said "it made my sisters and I really close."

It also led three years later to the national Clark law, which requires that cockpit doors on commercial flights be locked to prevent similar tragedies.

Julie Clark, though devastated by the loss, didn't let it crush her passion for flight. She became one of the first female pilots to work for a major airline and is a former commercial airline and aerobatic air show pilot of more than 40 years.

"I always, always wanted to fly," she said. "It never wavered."

The appearance by Clark, of Cameron Park, was part of an exhibit on the crash that continues until Jan. 26 at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley.

Chuck Fereira, a Danville resident who attended the talk, recalled he was 17 when he learned from his mother, who worked for the town's mortician and coroner, and father, that a lone gunman was responsible.

At the time, Danville was "a one-horse town that had just become a two-horse town" of about 13,000 people, he said. And, in the days after the crash, Danville swelled with investigators and the press, who swarmed as loved ones of the dead came to claim bodies that overflowed to a makeshift morgue at the Village Theater.

"The town had really come to comprehend the magnitude of what happened," he recalled. And it made an indelible mark on the psyche of many.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.

IF YOU GO
  • What: "Mystery in the Sky: The Crash of Flight 773" exhibit
  • When: 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 3 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 26
  • Where: Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 205 Railroad Ave., Danville
  • Cost: $1 for Crash mini exhibit. Museum regular admission free to members; families, $5; adults, $3; children, $1; and students, $2
  • Details: www.museumsrv.org