Crash at Stapleton
The fiery crash of United Air Lines DC-8 jetliner at Denver's Stapleton Field led to reforms at the airport's fire station.It was 1961 -- the dawn of the jet age and firefighters lacked equipment and staffing to manage modern aircraft.
"The size and fuels of our airplanes has changed," Denver Fire Chief Allie Feldman. "Our firefighting equipment has not."
On July 11, 1961, Flight 859 skidded off a runway and exploded in flames, killing 18 people. One of the passengers died at a hospital.
Airport firefighters were praised for their valiant efforts, but the City of Denver was later criticized for being inadequately prepared.
An FAA inspector had warned that the airport's fire equipment was too old for the jet age.
Stapleton's crash trucks were "at least 12 years old," Feldman said. "It was the best we had at the time." Feldman was quoted in an Associated Press story printed in the Toledo Blade of Ohio.
Flight 859 "ground looped after the crash, swerved off the runway and smashed into a truck," the AP reported in a story printed in the Daily Tribune of Greeley, Colorado.
Truck driver Henry Blom died instantly.
Flames engulfed the cabin.
"When I went out the door, my hat was on fire," said passenger Eva Hershel, 64, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was quoted in an AP story printed in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal.
Dr. Earl Guyer, clinical psychologist at the Veterans Hospital at Fort Lyons, was at the airport to meet his wife and three daughters. They died in the flames.
Ten minutes before touching down at Stapleton, the pilot reported hydraulic problems.
The airport's three fire engines were placed on "stand-by" at the east end of the runway, standard procedure for aircraft reporting potential mechanical problems.
"The fire trucks were standing by where they were supposed to," said Dick Martin, the airport manager. Martin was quoted in an AP story printed in the Lewiston Morning Tribune of Idaho.
However, the city's other fire stations were unaware, and that led to a delay in the arrival of reinforcements.
"No other fire stations were notified because nobody, including the pilot, realized it was so serious," Martin said.
Additionally, questions were raised about the airport's water supply.
United Airlines mechanic Earl Darling said he fought the flames with a fire extinguisher because "they didn't get any water on the burning plane for at least five minutes after it crashed." Darling was quoted in an AP story printed in the Lewiston Morning Tribune of Idaho.
However, Denver Fire Captain Edward Trunck said: "We started rolling our trucks when the airplane hit the runway. We started on that foam immediately."
Even if there had been more equipment and firefighters placed on standby, there was little that could have been done because speed and intensity of the flames.
"It didn't make any difference how many pieces of fire equipment we had there," Feldman said.