Derry, PA Helicopter Crashes Into Festival, Sept 1978


Derry, Pa. (AP) -- Twelve-year-old MARY BETH ALLISON was laughing as she dropped pingpong balls numbered for prizes from a helicopter to a crowd attending a Labor Day church festival.
Moments later the helicopter plunged into the crowd, leaving seven persons dead, including MISS ALLISON'S mother, and at least 19 others injured.
"Everybody was running for those balls," said DENISE DeCARIO of New Derry, who was mingling in the crowd. "The girl was laughing, Then there was blood everywhere."
Six persons were killed instantly when the craft slammed into a concession stand at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in this southwestern Pennsylvania borough. Coroner Leo Bacha said the seventh person died later at a nearby hospital.
Eyewitnesses said the church parking lot was covered with blood and severed bodies after the three-seat helicopter, a Hughes 269C, crashed to the ground.
"There were people lying all over the place, some with their heads off and arms off," said Helen Irwin, who saw the crash from outside the family tavern a half-block away.
"One man, his body was cut in half. It was just a terrible mess."
Latrobe police Sgt. Joseph Muchinski said about 500 persons were attending the festival on the final day of a three-day annual fund-raiser. It was the first year a helicopter had been used.
Federal Aviation Administration Inspector Dave Kountz said the blade tips of the helicopter were traveling at 350 to 400 mph.
"The pilot indicated the possibility that the engine might have failed She did attempt to land," Kuntz said.
The pilot, Pam Nelson of West Mifflin, and the two passengers, Miss Allison and her father, Leo, a church janitor, were uninjured, authorities said.
Mrs. Nelson is the wife of the owner of Nelson Helicopters, based at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, according to Derry Policeman Ronald Bolen.
Allison's wife, MARY, was one of those struck by the falling helicopter. She died later at Latrobe Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Andrea Guzik, who said 19 persons were taken to the hospital.
Eleven persons remained in the hospital today, including three in critical condition, hospital officials said.
A spokesman at Latrobe Hospital listed the people admitted as follows:
ANDREW PALEK, 59, Wilpen; fractured skull; critical condition.
JANICE PETRUNYAK, 12, Derry; chest fractures; critical condition.
THOMAS BARCHESKY, 13, Derry; severe arm injuries; critical condition.
ANDREW SPILLAR, 68, Latrobe; multiple fractures; critical condition.
ELAINE MALLOY, 28, Derry; broken jaw; fair condition.
ROBERTA PUSKAR, 27, Latrobe; broken ribs; fair condition.
MRS. VINZENZENE MATEO, 62, Derry; broken ribs; fair condition.
IRENE HORRELL, 60, Derry; chipped fractures, cervical sprain, cuts of the scalp and a broken finger; fair condition.
RUTH URDZIK, 60, Derry; fair condition.
RUTH KAZEMCHAK, 57, Derry; shoulder injury; fair condition.
GERALD HAASE, 32, Latrobe; fair condition.
For several hours after the mishap, firemen scoured the area, scooping up body parts and placing them in plastic bags.
The dead were taken to a temporary morgue established in a cafeteria inside St. Joseph's hall, where The Rev. John Wilt, pastor of the church, administered last rites.
Police originally said the helicopter might have struck a utility pole, but there was no confirmation of the report and several eyewitnesses disputed it.
"The helicopter was heading west and reached an area around the corner of the church when either the wind or engine failure caused it to drop," reported Bill Costanzo, managing editor of the Latrobe Bulletin.
Costanzo added, "There was blood all over the parking lot ..... It (the helicopter) fell right into the crowd. One eyewitness said there were bodies flying all over the place. A couple of bodies I saw had to be kids."
Don Johnston, 51, who said he and his 5-year-old son were about 15 feet from the crash site, said, "It never touched a building. There was no explosion, nothing."
"I thought he was going to land, and I thought, 'How can he land in a crowd of people?' He was in trouble and I didn't even know it."
"It just happened so quick. I don't think people had a chance to scream."
Latrobe Hospital, when notified of the accident put its Disaster Code Red into operation and brought out off-duty personnel to handle the injured.
Among the ambulances dispatched to the scene were two vehicles from the Blairsville Station of Citizens Ambulance Service.
The Blairsville Fire Department sent a truck and firemen to the Eastern Derry Township Fire Company firehall at Hillside for standby duty.
It was also reported that the state police had called out off-duty personnel to assist at the scene and in the investigation.
A representative of the National Transportation Safety Board was en route to Derry to probe the cause of the crash.
Citzens band (CB) radio operators were reportedly active on all channels during the emergency to warn motorists to stay away from the disaster site.

Indiana Evening Gazette Pennsylvania 1978-09-05

List of Casualties:
MARY LOU ALLISON, 46, of Derry, a homemaker and mother of three. She was there to watch her husband and daughter drop the ping pong balls from the helicopter at their parish's festival.
TAMMY BARCHESKY, 13, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junior High School and a saxophone player in the school's marching band. She survived 15 days before succumbing to her injuries.
EDWARD "TIM" DEGLAU, 32, of Derry, a husband and father of two young children who worked as a ninth-grade math teacher at Derry Area Junior High. He was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
GERTRUDE GRAY, 54, of Unity. Her husband, Joseph, died seven months earlier.
DARLENE GRAY, 13, of Unity, her daughter. Darlene was a freshman at Greater Latrobe High School.
IRENE MALOY, 53, of Derry, volunteer in a bake sale booth when the helicopter crashed on top of it.
PARECE SMITH, 14, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junion High School who played bells in the school marching band.
LOIS JOY WEIDENHOFF, 51, of Kittanning Township, a wife and mother of one son.


I will never forget this as I

I will never forget this as I worked at the finance company that had the lien. There was actually 2 helicopters owned and bought by the same person and both crashed in a very short period. I was all but 18 then but it stayed with me over the years.

I was seven when this

I was seven when this happened. I wasn't there that day but my friends went and asked me to go. I remeber being upset that I couldn't go. At that age it was the helicopter dropping prizes that made us want to be there. I just wanted to let you know that it was the methodist church acroos the tracks that installed the bells. They also had plaques installed in the basement meeting rooms that honored all of the victims. I don't know if they are still there but you could probably stop by to see. We had girlscout sleepovers down there and we would talk about it at night. I hope the plaques are still there and that you might find someone to talk to help find peace. Unfortunately Derry doesn't talk about anything. This was the biggest tradgey but it wasn't the only one. They don't talk about any of them.

I was there, I was 9 fixing

I was there, I was 9 fixing to turn ten. To this day, that day still haunts me. I am terrified of helicopters. I remember seeing things no child should ever see.
God bless.

I had the honor of taking

I had the honor of taking care of Irene when I worked at Bethlen Home, that was the first time I ever heard about this horrible accident.

I want to talk about it

I was there that day. I was nine. I want to talk about it though nobody else wants to. I have two tours in Iraq but this thing haunts me most. I may not have answers but would like to talk if you have the time.


Still Dealing With It

To All. I was nine at the time and had to sift through the carnage in a vain effort to find my sister. I found my younger sister unharmed but not my older sister. She was injured and taken care of, but I never found her. I was escorted away before that. It's hard to talk about. It's almost impossible to imagine but still so real. I've served over 20 years active service with two tours in Iraq - this is the thing that haunts me most. I returned to Derry - to the parking lot. I expected a memorial but saw nothing. I remember they repaired the chain link fence with some wire, but there's nothing to commemorate that day. I do recall that the church across the tracks did install some chimes to honor Parece Smith. I remember hearing them in the evenings and recall her visiting our house, possibly for a sleep over with my sister. I don't know what I'm looking for. I'm willing to meet and talk with survivors. I don't want to conjure up bad memories - I was only nine at the time. I'm still trying to understand. I have no anger or pain - just a hole, a dark hole with vivid visions of sorrow. There are so many unanswered questions.

I will ask

I can see that there is a lot of anger here and no closure. As I have lost a child myself, I understand that feeling very well. If you want me to give her a message, I will. I don't check this site often (not since my last post), but I'll check it again if you want to leave a reply.

remembering darlene

Darlene was my friend. She sat next to me in school. So sad.

So you know the pilot? Did

So you know the pilot? Did you know that she stood outside the Courtroom Laughing While Talking to Her Attorney as well as jesting with others while my family stood by weeping? This was a few years after the tragedy. I never blamed her per se, however she and her husband neglected to correct the problem that they had known about for quite sometime. You may know her however you don't know the details. I am sure she would never do something like that to hurt others.. really I am sure. However the faulty part the had been found faulty before and never fixed properly brought this situation on. She is left with NO void in her heart. Did you ever realize that nice caring mother you report her to be, she never reached out to us with any compassion, sympathy, or apologies for out loss?

Ask her about that when you see her next time.

Irene Horrell was my great

Irene Horrell was my great grandmother. My father and uncle had been at the festival with her that day and i remember her telling me about them lifting the tail end of the helicopter up to help free herself and others that were trapped under it. She was very lucky to survive the event.