Bloody wreckage haunts witnesses, would-be rescuers as the cleanup starts CRASH OF USAIR FLIGHT 427

September 10, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- A high school student named Chris Ciccone saw a lone Reebok sneaker and the charred body of a child.

Episcopal Bishop Alden Hathaway discovered a perfectly manicured fingernail lying in the mud.

But for Beaver County Sheriff Frank Policaro, the most haunting image was this:

There was hardly anything left of the fuselage of USAir Flight 427.

"You go up there and look for an airplane, and you won't find one," he said. "This is my first airplane crash. I hate to tell you, but they're different from auto crashes, suicides, train wrecks and tornadoes. You just wonder, 'How can a thing like that happen?' "

Yesterday, the people of Hopewell and western Pennsylvania tried to fathom the wreckage and destruction that lay on a hillside six miles from Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

USAir Flight 427, en route from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, crashed nose first Thursday night, killing all 132 people aboard. As a gloomy, rain-soaked dawn broke yesterday,

would-be rescuers began to comprehend the loss, and to clean up the hillside.

The scene was declared a biological hazard because of the amount of blood. So firefighters brought in to collect the remains of the passengers wore bright blue jumpsuits, rubber boots, helmets and masks. They also had to be inoculated for hepatitis.

Twenty coroners and forensic pathologists spent hours combing the countryside, trying to identify bodies. But officials said it is unlikely they will be able to identify all of the passengers.

"There is nothing to compare to this, except maybe overseas in Vietnam during the war," said L. Skip Haswell, of the Beaver County coroner's office. "You can never prepare yourself for what you'll see. I don't think they will have a chance of identifying too many bodies."

But it could have been far worse for this township of 18,000 residents, hard by the city of Aliquippa.

The accident scene lay a half-mile from the Green Garden Plaza mall and near a soccer field. At the time of the crash Thursday, after 7 p.m., there were hundreds of shoppers in the strip mall and more than 100 youth players on the soccer field.

Jason Moka, 10, and his brother Justin, 6, were among those soccer players who watched in stunned disbelief in the twilight as the Boeing 737-300 crashed.

"It went right over the field," Jason said. "It just missed us. It was big and it was low. And then, it went belly up in the air and came crashing down."

"There was a loud crash," Justin said. "And then, the ground was shaking."

A Pennsylvania state trooper, Norman Ferrence, was the first to call in for emergency units.

Ron McMasters, Hopewell's assistant fire chief, was monitoring his emergency radio when he heard the state trooper call out: "Black smoke. Fire everywhere at the Aliquippa exit. Get me help."

Emergency crews arrived from as far away as Ohio. But there was nothing anyone could do Thursday as darkness soon draped the site.

"All there was was a wall of fire," Mr. McMasters said. "I will never forget it. I was looking for survivors. But I couldn't figure out why I couldn't see anyone. As I was getting closer, I could see parts of hands and feet."

Chris Ciccone, the 16-year-old Hopewell High School junior, was one of the few who ventured to the scene before it was cordoned off who said he discovered an intact body.

"It was a little kid, 5 or 6 years old, that's all I could tell," he said, still visibly shaken early yesterday. "I couldn't tell at all if it was a boy or a girl."

Bishop Hathaway and three other ministers, called in to counsel the rescue teams, toured the area and were stunned.

"The people on that airplane are not there on that hill," the bishop said. "They are now in eternity."

Left behind, though, are hundreds of rescue workers, who spent night and day both securing and cleaning up the site. Some wept upon seeing the wreckage. Others stoically carried on.

Law enforcement officials say they arrested eight people for trespassing near the debris. But for the most part, the workers had free rein as they cut a trail to the wreckage.

But as the day wore on, exhaustion set in. These were workers pulled away from homes and families, from late shifts at offices and coaching stints on the soccer fields.

Sheriff Policaro was one of those who was at home at the time of the crash. He was picking tomatoes from his garden when the call came in and he was drawn into an inferno on a hill. Bleary-eyed after a night of work, he tried desperately to make sense of the deaths.

"That plane could have landed in this parking lot," he said. "But it didn't."

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