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Airline disaster would push emergency personnel to limits

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Debris from the airliner crash on Sept. 9, 1969, is scattered throughout the area even as investigators arrived to set up command posts. Phone lines had to be run to the site to assist with communication in this rural part of Shelby County.
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Investigators walk along a road searching for pieces of human remains and parts of either of the two planes.
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Not only did Allegheny Airlines 853 carry 78 passengers and a crew of four, it also contained U.S. mail that was scattered throughout the soybean fields in the area. Clothes from passenger luggage also landed over a large area, including in many neighboring trees.
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A police officer walks along the road as a single shoe sits away from where the DC-9 went down in the soybean field

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

The alarm rings out at all three Shelbyville firehouses. Dispatch ignites Shelbyville’s first responders to a reported plane down in a remote part of Shelby County. 

What happens next would be drastically different than the events surrounding the Allegheny Airlines 853 crash on Sept. 9, 1969. 

“An event of that scale would take everything our agency has plus some,” admitted Shelbyville Fire Chief Tony Logan. “We have mutual aid agreements with all the county volunteer fire departments in our county, plus outside of our county. We have resources available to us from Indianapolis EMS to the Airport Authority at the airport in Indianapolis. The National Guard is an asset to us. We would be pulling in a lot of assets to help mitigate the problem.”

An event the magnitude of what happened 50 years ago may never happen again in Shelby County. But it had never happened before that fateful day when a small Piper Cherokee plane collided with the tail of a DC-9 airliner over northwestern Shelby County. The result left 83 dead after the Cherokee and the passenger airliner sped uncontrolled into soybean fields near Shady Acres Trailer Park located just off London Road. 

The force of the impact never sparked a fire despite jet fuel being scattered across a large area. That tragedy left two immediate problems for first responders: securing the scene and identifying all 83 people aboard both planes. The first proved difficult. The second was nearly impossible according to eyewitness reports.

“The sad thing about that particular incident, there were no salvageable patients really to speak of,” said Logan. 

There were plenty of onlookers, though.

“If it’s in the county, we would basically go in a support role,” said Shelbyville Police Chief Mark Weidner. “The only thing local law enforcement would do is keep people away from it, guard the scene and let the FAA and NTSB have at it. We wouldn’t do anything actively with the investigation. We would be more involved with crowd control, damage control and evidence protection.”

Most of the area around the crash site is farmland — soybeans in 1969, corn today. Both planes narrowly missed landing within the trailer park. In fact, several trailers were damaged by plane debris.

A narrow road off London Road was the only access point to the crash site – and it was part of the crash site. Cars can be seen from one aerial photo sitting in the same field where the DC-9 went down. 

Today, a much larger perimeter would have been set so the area could be properly documented and searched. Then, instead of walking the scene, as photos show the investigators and emergency personnel doing in 1969, the area would be gridded off and photographed to help with the identification process. 

Once it was determined that no one survived the crash in 1969, body part collection commenced. Rather than document where each part was found, ambulance gurneys were stacked with what was found and hauled back to the National Guard Armory on East Washington Street in Shelbyville. Tarps were placed on the floor and a makeshift morgue was created. 

“That’s exactly what happens when you first arrive (on scene), the first priority is getting everyone out of there,” said Weidner. “How are you going to know if anyone moved anything? How are you going to know if someone removed anything? And something with that magnitude, you’re never going to know.”

Every resource would be tasked in a case like the Allegheny Airlines crash but Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun feels the city and county are more prepared now than in 1969.

“First and foremost, I think the difference between then and now is we have a very active EMA,” said DeBaun. “We would be working very closely with (agencies) like Homeland Security.

“I would say we would be more organized in that regard. Information is instantaneous now. It would be all hands on deck because the airliners today have more people, you will be dealing with a much larger situation. I can’t even imagine anything of that magnitude.”

Servicing the crash site would pull a plethora of emergency responders out of Shelbyville, which causes problems on the homefront.

“We have a backup plan,” said Logan. “We have what’s called a Code 4 where we bring in off-duty personnel to back up our engines and reserve ambulances so we still have protection in the city. If that would go past that, the volunteer fire service, those guys, if available, would come in and man our stations. If we go past that, we’re looking at bringing in a couple of career departments, maybe Franklin or Greensburg or Rushville to cover our stations while we’re working on this incident.”

A more likely scenario for an incident involving an airplane could take place at the Shelbyville Municipal Airport – or even the National Guard Armory, which maintains Blackhawk helicopters.

“We’ve had some training out there,” said Logan when asked about the airport. “We’ve also had some training with the National Guard because some of their helicopters have some specific issues with them.”

Despite the training, a crash landing would still provide challenges for local firefighters.

“We are a very good fire department for residential house fires, building fires and EMS,” said Logan. “We would probably need some help depending on what it is, whether it is a National Guard helicopter that had an issue or an airplane that had an issue.”