"This is Murray Morgan."
With that self-introduction and after a poignant pause, the Tacoma-born historian and journalist begins a description of a horrific scene — the immediate aftermath of a crash of an Air Force transport that happened 60 years ago last week.
Carrying a heavy tape recorder, considered portable in 1952, the “radio talker” got to the scene in a little more than an hour. He turned on the recorder and began narrating.
Listen to Murray Morgan:
“This is a dreadful and eerie scene out here,” he said. “It is cold and it is dark and it is foggy. There are flames from the plane still smoldering an hour, hour and a half, after the crash.”
Early on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 28, 1952, the C-54 Skymaster, the military version of the Douglas DC-4, was making its approach to McChord Air Force Base. On board were seven crew members and 32 passengers — service members and their families returning from Alaska for the holidays.
Capt. Albert Fenton decided to abort an instrument approach when a heavy fog bank reduced his visibility to near zero. After radioing ground control that he would instead head to Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana, his home field, the plane banked to the west, clipped some trees and caught fire before smashing into a field a mile northwest of McChord.
The recording, which contains Morgan’s descriptions of the scene and interviews with witnesses, was discovered among reel-to-reel tapes that were part of a donation made to the Tacoma Public Library by Morgan, his wife, Rosa, and daughter Lane. The material, still being curated, is the centerpiece of what is now the Murray and Rosa Morgan Room in the main library’s Northwest Room.
In addition to the tapes are 3,500 books, radio scripts and boxes of ephemera, as well as materials collected as part of Morgan’s research for iconic Northwest histories such as “Skid Road” and “Puget’s Sound.”
Preservationist Michael Sullivan and freelance radio producer Dominic Black have volunteered to convert the tapes to digital format, but only about 20 of the 100 tapes have been converted by audio specialist Dave Dinterfass because it is not cheap — about $100 per tape. Still, the contents are fascinating — ranging from one of Lane’s birthday parties to the C-54 crash scene. Another contains audio of arguments between Tacoma Mayor A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen and City Manager Dave Rowlands during one of the raucous late 1960s City Council meetings that became known as the Tuesday Night Follies.
The crash audio is raw, and Sullivan presumes not all of it was aired once Morgan returned to the KMO studios to produce his morning news and commentary report. Listeners in 1952 — or now — might not have wanted to hear descriptions of Army blankets lifted to expose the bodies of burned children and headless adults.
“Men with flashlights are turning them around and wherever they turn they come upon scenes of horror,” Morgan says among pauses where he appears to be collecting his emotions.
“A man who just went by me turned the flashlight on a small package — a Christmas-wrapped package — with a big Santa Claus on it. The package was broken open and in it was a doll.”
Dogs can be heard barking in the background. At one point, an amplified voice is heard calling for a pastor to come forward.
Black said that when KUOW aired the tape earlier this year, some listeners who tuned in after the introduction had what he dubbed a “War Of The Worlds” moment, thinking it was a live report of a crash that had just happened.
What caused the plane to go down? In his article on HistoryLink.org, Daryl C. McClary wrote that the Air Force inquiry determined that when Fenton tried to boost power to regain altitude after aborting the landing, the No. 3 engine failed.
“In the thick fog, the pilot was unable to see, much less avoid, a line of towering trees immediately north of the base,” McClary wrote. Of the 39 people on board, all but two were killed. Nine of the victims were children.
One survivor, an 8-year-old named Joseph Iacovitti, lost both parents and three younger siblings. He became a symbol of the holidays around the city, dubbed “The Biggest Little Boy in Pierce County” by The News Tribune. During his recovery from burns, a broken neck and a broken arm, the boy was unofficially adopted by St. Joseph Hospital staff who bought him a bicycle and a television, though programming was limited in 1952.
He was officially adopted by an aunt and uncle and returned to Pennsylvania, where he practiced law before buying a popular tavern in Frackville. He died in 2006.