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Posted: 2:01 p.m. Monday, May 21, 2012

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Orly plane crash - 50 years later

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Orly plane crash 50th anniversary photo
Billy Downs
June 4, 1962 - Flag flies at half-staff in Atlanta, GA. in honor of the victims of a chartered Air France Boeing 707 which crashed on takeoff at Orly Air Field in France. Most of the passengers were from Atlanta.
Explosion at Orly photo
Explosion at Orly

By Chris Chandler

The French expedition was no plebian tourist outing, but rather a major effort at touting Atlanta’s cultural pedigree to European movers and shakers—the number and stature of dignitaries intended to demonstrate “the city too busy to hate” was more than a sleepy hamlet barely removed from “Gone with the Wind”.  The mission to France was important enough in Atlanta that both WSB radio and television broadcast its May departure live; on Sunday, June 3rd, dozens of spouses, children, and friends were preparing to greet the return flight at Atlanta airport, later in the day.

Instead….

 “King Elliot of WSB radio was ‘on the board’ at the station that morning when the flash came over,” Aubrey Morris recalled to WSB’s Scott Slade in 2008.  “In fact, it didn’t come over the wire service.  John Rich of NBC radio (WSB was affiliated with NBC radio at that time)…reported the crash from Paris. We broke the story.”

Here is the text of Rich’s 8:00 AM report; while the confirmed death toll would fluctuate in the coming hours, this was the first word many Atlantans heard that their loved ones would never come home, and it is being presented here for the first time since 1962:

“131 persons…died today in the flaming crash of a chartered Air France Boeing jetliner taking off at Orly airport.   All the passengers—122 of them--were Americans, many said to be members of the Association of Arts of Atlanta, Georgia. Two French stewardesses sitting in the tail miraculously escaped death when they were thrown clear of the blazing wreckage.  The tragedy occurred here in brilliant sunshine.   It’s the worst single-plane disaster in the history of civil aviation.”

Hear the actual NBC first bulletin of the Orly crash, 8:00 AM, June 3, 1962 [0:28]

Ann Uhry Abrams, who decades later would write a book documenting the crash and its aftereffects, remembers hearing those early flashes over the radio.  “We were coming back from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which was where we used to take the kids during the summer,” she told WSB’s Chris Chandler.  “And we just switched on the radio which was going on and off--a lot of static.  And I heard them say there had been a crash at Orly field with a group from Atlanta.  And then it went off.   And at that moment I burst into tears because I knew that was the flight.”

In her 2002 history Explosion at Orly, Abrams wrote of many others hearing the life-altering news via radio loudspeaker:  “When her radio-alarm roused her to go to Sunday school, through her sleepy fog (Teresa Turner) immediately knew that news of a plane crash meant her mother, Alee Tidmore, was dead.  Her first impulse was to find her brother Bill…But when she reached him, it was too late.  He had been listening to his car radio.”

Or Linda Lanier, whose parents were aboard the doomed flight.  Abrams writes, “Linda and her fiancé were enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning with the radio playing in the background.  Like so many others that same day, she heard about the Orly crash from a news flash that interrupted the regular broadcast.”

Hear Atlanta author Ann Abrams describe hearing the first news bulletin on her car radio in 1962 [0:29]

Like thousands of other Atlantans, the late Aubrey Morris was in church when the news came.   “An usher came over and tapped me on the shoulder during morning prayer and said, ‘You’re wanted at the station’,” Morris told WSB’s Scott Slade in 2008.   “I said, ‘What is it?’  ‘A crash in Paris.’  I knew immediately what it was.”

There was no internet in 1962, no satellite feed to provide instantaneous updates.  No 24/7 cable news.  Even local television was hampered by slowness borne of cumbersome technology (early tube cameras had “to “warm up” before use) and skimpy weekend staffing; it was reportedly mid-morning before any TV station began broadcasting news of the crash.  For a city suddenly jarred to attention, radio was a lifeline, the only outlet for any information.

Morris raced to WSB’s White Columns studios, one question ringing in his mind:  “How do you cover a tragedy like this?”  The situation was complicated by conflicting wire-service bulletins.  Did the crash involve a regularly-scheduled flight or the Atlanta charter?  How many people had actually perished?   While newsman King Elliot remained at the White Columns microphone, Morris joined victims’ family members huddled at Atlanta’s Air France office.  From there, passengers’ names clacked on a teletype in a maddening seeming slow motion.  WSB abandoned its program schedule, pre-empting the weekly broadcast of  First Presbyterian Church’s service  to read the growing list of dead—many of them members of the very church whose program was being interrupted.

Amid the fits-and-starts recitations of the victims, city leaders took to the WSB airwaves.  Police Chief Herbert Jenkins said, “This sad tragedy is the worst thing that’s happened in Atlanta in my lifetime…I cannot find words to express our regrets and sympathy to people and families of those affected.”  Former Mayor William Hartsfield proclaimed, “This is a sad day in the history of Atlanta.  The cream of Atlanta’s citizenship both in the world of civic affairs, and music and in the arts, has gone in one unfortunate few minutes.  There are no words to express the grief and sorrow of all the friends of these fine people.”   “It breaks the hearts of all of us,” said Atlanta’s French Consul in a brief statement.  It was Aubrey Morris who broke the news to Mayor Ivan Allen; Allen was traveling and rushed back to his stunned city.  Upon his arrival, Allen told WSB, “Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.  Our deepest sympathy is extended to the hundreds of families and thousands of friends of the victims of this tragedy…It’s an irreplaceable loss that only the years and time will take care of.”

Hear former Mayor William Hartsfield’s statement on WSB, hours after the crash. [0:37]

Mayor Allen quickly decided upon a court of action, and Morris soon delivered a flash from City Hall.  “Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. (is) leaving Atlanta at 6:00 PM today on a jet flight to Paris, France.  The mayor told me he is going with the purpose of representing the city of Atlanta and ‘to do everything that we can do for the families of these victims’.  Senator Herman Talmadge has been on the telephone here with Mayor Allen from Washington for the past few minutes.  Senator Talmadge arranged for emergency visas to be issued….There’s also some other activity, what will be happening in the city of Atlanta tomorrow from an official standpoint.  For one thing, the state capitol will be closed tomorrow.  It’s a legal holiday, today being the birthday of Jefferson Davis…City Hall will be closed a portion of the day.”  Atlanta flags were ordered to half-staff. 

Hear WSB’s Aubrey Morris reporting from Atlanta City Hall. [2:12]

Hear WSB’s King Elliot on NBC’s ‘Monitor’ program announce Mayor Allen’s trip, @4:00 PM, 6/3/62. [2:27]

As he later recounted it to author Ann Uhry Abrams, Morris returned to the WSB studios with a pronouncement:  “I’m going to France.”    “I had the feeling that the people of Atlanta, the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy, should have information as factual as possible and as quickly as possible,” he said in 1962.  ”And I knew that the only way for WSB radio to provide this was to go to the scene.”  Station managers quickly agreed—though Morris suddenly realized he didn’t have long to pull himself together:  “’I’ll have to give my wife credit for that because we live out at Sandy Springs. When our executives here at WSB decided I should go and would go, my wife scurried around, found my passport, and brought my things down to White Columns.  And we were then transported to the Atlanta airport as rapidly as possible by our program director, Mr. Elmo Ellis, getting there just in time to get that plane.”

Morris reported from Atlanta airport before his departure and broadcast live comments from Mayor Allen during a layover in New York.  He would be the only reporter to accompany the mayor on the trip.  In a role that might raise ethics eyebrows today, Morris acted as Allen’s unofficial media advisor, grieving fellow citizen rather than fourth-estate adversary, warning the mayor that rough-and-tumble New York reporters might not be as gentlemanly as those he faced in Georgia and convincing Allen he must be photographed at the crash scene, to convince those back home he genuinely was doing everything possible on their behalf. 

Hear Aubrey Morris and WSB General Manager Elmo Ellis before departing Atlanta Airport for Paris. [1:33]

Hear WSB’s Aubrey Morris and Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen speaking from a layover in New York City, the evening of June 3, 1962. [1:26]

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