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Allegheny Airlines tragedy remembered

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Steve Frazee from the Strand Theatre, center, shares some information Wednesday night he learned when researching the history of the mass grave at Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville. The mass grave and memorial werecreated following the Allegheny Airlines crash in northwestern Shelby County in 1969.
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Jack Boyce, left, talks with Dr. Robert Inlow about the Allegheny Airlines crash that left 83 people dead on Sept. 9, 1969.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

A small but invested crowd of just over 100 people visited the Strand Theatre Wednesday night for the Community Treasure Series discussion on the Allegheny Airlines 853 tragedy of 1969.

On Sept. 9, 1969, a DC9 aircraft belonging to Allegheny Airlines was on approach to Indianapolis from Cincinnati when a Piper Cherokee, piloted by a student pilot, collided with it causing both planes to crash into fields in northwestern Shelby County near Shady Acres Trailer Park. 

All 82 people aboard Allegheny Airlines flight 853 and the pilot of the small plane were killed, marking the worst airline tragedy in Indiana’s history.

The Community Treasure Series, in conjunction with the Grover Museum, convenes monthly discussions on interesting topics surrounding Shelbyville and Shelby County history. Wednesday’s event was the eighth this year, according to Grover Museum director Alex Krach.

After a brief introduction Wednesday, Krach turned the emcee duties over to Jack Boyce, a former employee at WSVL radio who was on scene at the crash site that day. Boyce shared his memories and provided audio recordings from that day that aired on WSVL, now known locally as WSVX.

“Tragedy struck at 3:31 p.m. Sept. 9, 1969. Allegheny 853 was getting ready to land at Indianapolis Weir Cook Airport when the plane’s tail was struck by a single engine Piper Cherokee. Indiana State Police report 83 dead. No survivors. WSVL news was the first crew to arrive on the scene and first to air the words of James Shields who witnessed the mid-air collision,” were Boyce’s first words from the scene captured 50 years ago. 

The days that followed put Shelbyville in the spotlight as emergency officials descended on the crash site to make sense of what happened and to begin the identification process of the passengers and crew.

At Wednesday’s discussion was Dr. Robert Inlow, a retired local physician who was Chief of Staff at Major Hospital when the tragedy occurred. He was at the National Guard Armory on East Washington Street which was set up to begin the identification process of what body parts were left.

The DC9 was estimated to be cruising at 350 miles per hour when it was struck. The downward force of the plane pushed it nearly 20 feet into the ground in a soybean field. The impact nearly disintegrated the plane and its passengers. Only the Piper pilot, Robert Carey, was found intact. 

“There just weren’t any bodies,” said Inlow of what arrived at the armory, which was serving as a makeshift morgue. “There were fragments. The largest piece of tissue I saw was a half of a pelvis. There weren’t any faces, no heads, there were broken bones with muscles attached, ribs, but nothing about this tissue that would make you say this was a human being.”

Photographs were then shown from the crash scene, courtesy of James Montgomery, who provided perspective on what was shown, including investigators in the field and plane parts that were identifiable.

Following the hour-long presentation, the crowd was invited to Forest Hill Cemetery for a brief ceremony honoring those that were buried there in a mass grave. 

On Monday, the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. at the crash site near Shady Acres Trailer Park. A memorial monument will be unveiled at this time.

The service is open to the public. Because parking is limited at the site, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department will offer a free escort at 10:30 a.m. from 1804 N. Riley Highway in Shelbyville.