For the rescuers, there is no one to rescue Crash investigators take on their grisly task

September 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- They came from across the mountains. They came from Moon Township, Beaver Falls and Baden. They came from more than 30 communities: volunteer firefighters, emergency units, ambulances, police.

But there was nobody to save last night when USAir Flight 427 went down while trying to land near Pittsburgh.

"I was in World War II, and I've seen a lot," said James Albert, chairman of the Beaver County commissioners. ". . . But I've never seen anything like this.

"That was awful," he said early today while emergency workers packed their gear. "It's a tragedy, the kind you don't expect to see around here. It's not good to even talk about it."

Within an hour of last night's crash, the Green Garden Plaza shopping center here was transformed into a modern-day M*A*S*H* unit, staffed by more than 500 workers from as far away as Ohio. Backhoes, dump trucks and emergency vehicles crowded the parking lot in front of the Hills department store, a Rentway and a submarine shop. At Goodwill Used Cars, a makeshift counseling center was created to give emergency workers a place to drink coffee, eat doughnuts and talk about the horrors they had seen.

"Within 45 minutes you couldn't even walk around this parking lot," Mr. Albert said at the lot a half-mile from the crash site. "It's amazing the people who came here to help."

But it was soon obvious that the rescue operation would turn into a hunt for bodies and scattered clues among the wreckage.

"There is debris hanging from the trees. Parts of clothing. Parts of seats," Mr. Albert said. "It's just a big swath through that area; it's a couple of hundred yards wide and I don't know how long."

Workers had to fight through a thicket of woods at the crash site. They also had to stay close to the path, since a wrong turn could lead to a 200-foot drop into the gully where plane parts were scattered.

"We are taken aback by the nature of the disaster," said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mark Singel.

One police officer said simply, "If you were up there [in the woods], you would never want to fly again."

Registered nurse Debbie Tormey and her firefighter husband, Mike, from Aliquippa, were among the first to reach the crash site and the last to leave the rescue area early today.

"This was like everything you've ever seen in a training film or in your career, but amplified," Mr. Tormey said. "I don't think anyone ever around here has seen things this bad. All you could do was put out the fire and protect the site."

Mrs. Tormey saw the plane plummet to Earth from two miles away.

"The plane looked huge," she said. "You could tell something was going to happen. I saw a big puff of smoke, but I heard nothing."

She drove to the shopping center and then raced to the crash site in an attempt to save lives.

"There was just debris, no survivors," she said. "These people were instantly killed. You could see that."

Hopewell Township resident Kelly King had just arrived home from work when she looked into the sky and saw the plane crash.

"It just shot up in a big ball of flame," she said. "After it hit, I saw a huge cloud of smoke. It just went straight down."

Mrs. King and her husband, Ron, a private plane pilot, immediately set off on foot through the woods to try to reach the crash site. "We got up to the police line," said Mr. King. "You couldn't see anything, because there was no plane left to see."

On their way back home, the couple picked up a piece of an airplane seat from the woods.

"We told the police we just want to get out of here," Mr. King said. They planned to turn the seat over to investigators. "I don't want this seat anymore," Mrs. King said. "I think it's gory."

L Mrs. King said that Hopewell is a quiet, peaceful community.

"This is just very devastating," she said. "We have planes flying over all the time. This is just traumatic."

As the Tormeys left the shopping center, Mrs. Tormey clutched her arms, shivering, as her husband stoicly hugged his arms to his body.

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