Monday, November 2, 2015

The Marianna B-47B Crash of 1952

USAF B-47B Stratojet during take off.
"The flames and fuel exploded all around us and engulfed my brother and sister."

Those thirteen words form what may be the most heartbreaking sentence ever written in the history of Jackson County, Florida. The writer was a young boy named Billie Williams and he was describing the explosion of a U.S. Air Force B-47B Stratojet bomber over Marianna on July 22, 1952.

Williams wrote his account of the crash in the mid-1950s at the suggestion of a minister. He was suffering from nightmares.

The Williams family, more than any other in Jackson County, has lived for more than 60 years with the horrible legacy of that tragic day. Billie now calls himself Bill and lives in Central Florida. His brother and sister - Rufus and Peggy Williams - died that day, as did the four crew members of the ill-fated aircraft.

B-47B on the runway at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
The B-47 was a workhorse of the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. A long-range strategic bomber, it flew at the high altitudes and high subsonic speeds needed to help it evade enemy fighter jets. The plane carried 17,000 gallons of fuel, more than triple the load of the B-29 bombers used during World War II. The improved B-47B, which came into service in 1951, carried an additional 1,600 gallons of fuel in external tanks.

The bomber was a vital part of U.S. plans for defense and retaliation against attacks from the Soviet Union or Cuba, but was not without its flaws. Jet aircraft technology was less than 10 years old at the time of the Marianna crash and engineers still had much to learn about the effects of pressure on aircraft stability.

The B-47 type aircraft were particularly susceptible to catastrophic failure while making the transition from low to high altitudes.

On the morning of July 22, 1952, a B-47B took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. The bomber headed north over the Gulf of Mexico at a high rate of speed and was flying at an altitude of 7,500 feet when it suddenly exploded over Marianna, Florida.

The plane's four turbojet engines broke away as the wings separated from the main fuselage. More than 10,000 gallons of fuel caught fire as the burning wreckage fell to earth.

Billie Williams woke up that day to the sounds of his parents arguing about a dog. His mother asked him to help get Rufus and Peggy, his younger brother and sister, dressed and ready to start their day. He was heading down the steps to take them to a neighbor's house when his mother noticed that he wasn't wearing shoes and told him to go back inside and put some on:

...She also told Peggy and Rufus to start walking to the Williams' and that I (Billie) would catch up with them. I ran back in the house and was sitting on the bed with my shoe in hand when I heard my mother from the front porch screaming at me. She was screaming through the screen door telling me to get out of the house and run. I dropped my shoe and I ran to the front door and out on to the porch and saw my mother running down the street. I jumped from the porch down to the ground and stopped. I heard a loud roaring sound and looked up toward the sky and saw a giant plane on fire with pieces of the plane falling towards me. - Excerpt from childhood account of Billie Williams, written in the mid 1950s.

(Story continues below map, which shows proposed marker location at the crash site.)

Williams ran around the corner of the house and could see his brother and sister standing near the fence around the home of Rev. and Mrs. C.H. Fort, who lived at the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street in Marianna. A wing and what appeared to be a large tank, possibly one of the external fuel tanks, were falling directly above them:

...I started running toward them when the tank and wing hit the ground exploding like a napalm bomb. The flames and fuel exploded all around us and engulfed my brother and sister. The explosion picked me up and hurled me against the house, almost knocking me unconscious. I got up and saw the flames everywhere, trees were on fire and the back of the preacher's house was burning. I looked at my shirt and saw it smoking. I turned and saw chickens and a cat on fire. The chickens were trying to fly through the woods. - Excerpt from childhood account of Billie Williams, written in the mid-1950s.

The account goes on to describe the horrible burns suffered by Rufus and Peggy Williams. Billie carried Rufus away from the fire and was trying to save Peggy when a second explosion blew him away from her. Rufus and Peggy died at nearby Jackson Hospital, despite the best efforts of the medical staff there to save them.

Body parts from the plane's crew, pieces of wreckage and other burning debris were found as far south as the old Marianna High School building on Daniels Street, while the main fuselage crashed into the block bounded by 4th Street, 6th Avenue, 5th Street and 7th Avenue.

All four members of the crew died in the crash and numerous other people on the ground were injured, including Billie Williams. His hair was singed and a piece of metal penetrated his arm.

The U.S. Air Force officers killed that day were Maj. Frederick Ewing, Capt. Oscar W. Yon, Capt. Richard E. Francis and Capt. James H. Forman.

Maj. Ewing is primarily remembered today as the pilot of a military aircraft that flew a mysterious crate from the site of the Roswell incident near Roswell, New Mexico, to a base in Fort Worth, Texas. The government originally announced that the Roswell incident involved the crash of a "flying disc" or UFO and many have speculated that the crate carried away by Ewing's flight contained the bodies of alien beings.

Either fuel or burning wreckage set the home of Rev. and Mrs. Fort on fire and it burned to the ground. Mrs. Fort and a friend, Mrs. W.C. Segers of Altha, suffered burns and were hospitalized.

A number of Marianna residents witnessed the crash or its aftermath before U.S. military personnel arrived and sealed off the neighborhood. Student volunteers from Dozier School for Boys helped collect the debris from the plane as the investigation went forward. They later wrote an account of their observations for the school newspaper.

Pieces of wreckage were never found and one of the conventional bombs from the plane plunged so deep into the ground that it was never found. The non-nuclear device remains buried somewhere under northern Marianna to this day.

Many local residents still remember the crash. No matter how vivid their memories, however, it is Billie Williams who still holds the most vivid thoughts of that day. I have withheld the most graphic parts of his account at his request.

An effort is now underway to place a metal historical marker at the site of the crash. Donations are requested to help with the $2,000 cost of the marker, which will be placed at the intersection of 4th Street and 6th Avenue in Marianna. If this story has touched your heart, as it did mine, please follow the link below to make a small donation to help in the placement of this memorial.



Dotpum said...

I, too, saw this explosion. Had a horrific fear of flying for 25 years. I flew my first time in 1969 out of pure necessity. Remember the falling parts, chutes on fire. Most of all - the horrendous noise that scared me, followed by years of nightmares.

Unknown said...

There is still a piece of the plane sticking out of the ground at the corner of 4th and 6th. My older brother said he used to find pieces of the plane when he would go walking in the woods around the area.

Bert Davis said...

I was born a coiple of weeks later on August 13. My folks live next to Mrs. Elrod down fron Golson on 2nd Ave. When it exploded, my dad ran out of the house toward the old Jackson Hospital now the convalescent home and retirement home, thinking it was going to land there. Mom said she almost had me then.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. W.C. Segers name was Alma Segers. The reason she was at the Fort home is because she was taking a break from staying with her son, Clyde Earl Segers, in the Marianna Hospital. Clyde had been in a serious auto accident and she took a break from taking care of him and went to visit her husband's, Clifton Segers, family members. While visiting with the Fort's, the explosion occurred and she was burned very badly and stayed in the hospital for a long period of time. It was a very bad time for the family because Alma and Clyde were in the Marianna hospital at the same time. Alma Segers was my mother's sister and she died on January 14, 1997 at the age of 88. Clyde currently lives in Marianna.

Cathy Mozley said...

I lived in Jackson County north of Marianna for over 40 years and had never heard of this event. Thank you, Dale, for the research and writing that you do about the north Florida area.

Johnny Barnes said...

I was born on the 19th and my mother was still in Jackson Hosp. with me.

Anonymous said...

Rev. and Mrs. Fort were my grandparents. Mrs. Fort was Ozie Segers Fort. My parents, AJ and Ellie Green, lived only a few blocks away, and my dad ran through the woods to get to my grandparents house. They lost everything, and my grandmother was badly burned. My mother, who is now 90, remembers this event vividly.