Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Macon flea market discovery renews interest in 1928 plane crash on Cherry Street

 February 18, 1928. People gather around the wreckage of an airplane on Cherry Street in downtown Macon February 18, 1928. Buck Steel and Jack Ashcroft were killed in the crash. A person named Murphy was killed on the sidewalk.

A plaque of a brass propeller on the Cherry Street sidewalk is a lone reminder of a historic plane crash 88 years ago Thursday.

Over the decades, the stories faded away from one of the city's greatest tragedies that drew hundreds of spectators.

"The folks are gone," said Pat Powell, a 61-year-old, third-generation Maconite, who knew little of the crash until he found old film footage of the aftermath.

He was trolling Smiley's Flea Market several years ago when some old movies caught his eye -- one marked "plane crash on Cherry Street."

"I couldn't tell you who did the film or anything," Powell said Wednesday.

A couple years ago, he took the footage to Coke's Camera to be copied onto a DVD. He uploaded it to YouTube a little over a year ago.

Powell, an avid "junker" and member of the Vintage Macon page on Facebook, has purchased a number of old films, some that appear to be vacation footage.

"I think about posting all the films I found because it's just silly stuff," he said. "Like ice sculptures in Japan and Queen Elizabeth in Canada going by in her car."

The crash footage is his most interesting find.

Powell has heard a few stories since then from when the World War I biplane crashed during a publicity stunt for the Southeastern Air Derby.

Henry Lowe has a old handbill advertising the show that he keeps in his office at Lowe Aviation.

Pilots from all over the country flew to Miller Field, which is now part of Bowden Golf Course.

"They would fly over town and do a loop or a roll," Lowe said.

According to The Telegraph archives, pilot Samuel L. "Buck" Steele and France "Lucky" Ashcraft were flying over downtown to entice people to come to the show.

They were lighting explosives ordered from a Los Angeles firecracker factory and throwing them from the plane.

"You'd hear this boom and everybody would look up," Lowe said.

The men successfully deployed two of the attention-getters.

Hundreds of people were lured onto Cherry Street in the middle of the lunch hour, craning their necks to watch the daredevils. A third explosive blew up part of the plane.

Witnesses reported seeing a blast near the tail of the plane, others under the wing and another man interviewed by the newspaper thought it was much closer to the cockpit.

"There was a burst of flames. Then the wing of the plane crumpled and the machine came hurtling to earth," the Feb. 19, 1928, edition of The Telegraph read. "It turned over once, then went into a nose dive and dropped like a meteor to Cherry Street."


The nose of the plane embedded in the concrete sidewalk.

"A stampede followed and the huge crowd milled around the street like cattle," The Telegraph's reporter wrote.

Children were trampled, people fainted and a woman carrying a baby was knocked down as "brawny men forced their way through the pack."

Clyde E. Murphy, who had a blacksmith shop on Plum Street, was like hundreds of others lured onto Cherry street to watch the plane's acrobatics. He was hit by the remaining wing as it dropped from the sky.

Murphy's foot was severed and the impact tore off his arm, which was found later under the wreckage.

Murphy died a couple hours later at the hospital, where rescuers brought the bodies of the pilots. Both suffered severe head wounds.

More than a dozen other people were hurt when the damaged sidewalk gave way under the weight of throngs of people lining the streets. Dozens of people perched on rooftops to watch rescue efforts to free the men from the mangled mess of wood.

Amid screaming women, "policemen shouted hoarsely for order, their voices lost in the din," the front page story read.

At the phone company, it was all hands on the switchboard as "telephone girls" scrambled back from their lunch break to handle the onslaught of hundreds of calls.

Irma Rainey was outside Person's Pharmacy where the plane hit.

"I saw blood spattering everywhere, it seemed," she told a reporter. "Then I turned sick."

About a quarter-mile away at the Terminal Station, pieces of the plane were found, including part of the windshield and blood-stained wood.

A Telegraph employee showed one of the soiled splinters to a pathologist, who confirmed it was human tissue. The discovery indicated the pilots were likely injured in the explosion and not necessarily killed on impact.

The Junior Chamber of Commerce, sponsoring the event with a flight school run by Ashcraft's brother, decided to continue the three-day show.

"With so many planes here from out of town, I do not think it would be fair to call off the events," an organizer said.

Pilots dropped flowers over the crash site the next day.

Mayor Luther Williams spoke of the magnitude of the catastrophe: "Such an accident is not likely to occur again, not in a million times."

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