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San Ramon Valley museum marks historic plane crash with exhibit

Pilot's daughter speaks about fatal wreck 50 years ago near Danville

The crash of Flight 773 in San Ramon nearly 50 years ago was not only a tragedy, claiming the lives of 44 people, but it was the start of security procedures that are still in place today.

The pilot's daughter, Julie Clark, followed her father into a career in aviation and retired after becoming one of the first women in the male-dominated profession.

In a recent talk at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, Clark told a crowd of more than 50 people that the crash -- in which Capt. Ernest "Ernie" A. Clark, 52, and copilot Ray Andress, 31, were shot -- was the first documented instance of a passenger using a gun on a plane. She said the shooting of the two gave rise to Federal Aviation Administration regulations which require cabin doors to the cockpit be closed.

"This was the first kind of terrorism event," Clark told the audience. "Nobody had ever seen anything like this before."

She noted that during her career as pilot, she saw the rise and fall of highjacking -- planes detoured from their destination, usually at gunpoint -- and the rise of terrorism.

"This crash was the first event, ever, to have a pilot disabled by a gunman," Clark said. "Not ever in the history of aviation had a pilot been disabled in the air."

May 7 marks the 50th anniversary of the crash, and the museum assembled a collection that includes newspaper accounts and parts of the wreckage dug up at the crash site in what was then unincorporated San Ramon, about three miles past the Danville town line.

The exhibit also featured a video documentary about the crash that included the last words of copilot Andress, in garbled transmissions, saying either "Skipper's been shot" or "I've been shot!" followed by "We've been shot! Oh my God, help!"

Those words and the sounds of fighting in the cockpit were received by air traffic controllers, who asked a nearby pilot to look out for the plane. That pilot reported seeing a black cloud of smoke coming from the ground.

"This has been hard for us to look at, this display," Clark told the group, noting she and her twin sister were 15 years old at the time.

"When this happened, my dad was so despondent over our mom's death," she said. "It was the worst, most awful thing you could think of."

Their mother had died about six months earlier, and she said reporters were camped out at the family home hoping for a comment from one of the three sisters left orphaned by the crash.

Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 was on a routine return flight from Reno when it crashed, according to museum president Jerry Warren, who curated the exhibit.

"There's no physical sign of where the impact crater was, but there was a very visible crater at the time," Warren to the group.

"It actually registered as a seismic even at Stanford," Clark said.

One resident, a teen at the time, said he and others snuck onto the site at night from time to time to search for pieces of the wreckage.

The crash sent reporters from across the country to Danville, with much speculation about the cause. Initial reports included the possibility that the gunshots in the cabin were from different passengers, including a police officer on the plane.

It wasn't until later that the suicidal passenger who stormed the cockpit and struggled with the pilot, copilot and stewardess was identified. Francisco Gonzales, 27, a Filipino man with marital problems, bought a gun and gambled away a large sum of money the night before the crash. He reportedly told friends and others that they'd soon be reading about him.

"I really think in my heart that he was trying to crash into the San Francisco Bay. It would never have been solved," Clark said, describing Gonzales as a "lone gunman," just months after another lone gunman shot and killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

Clark's father accepted the flight on what was to have been his night off after the pilot scheduled to make it called in sick. She said years later, when she was a professional pilot herself, she was talking to another pilot, saying she hoped the pilot who took the night off was actually sick. That pilot turned out to be the man her father replaced, and he confirmed that he was sick that night.

"I said, 'Please tell me you weren't playing golf,'" Clark told the crowd.

During her years as pilot, Clark also had chance encounters with the son of the copilot and the daughter of the stewardess from Flight 773, both of whom also went into aviation as a career.

The exhibit ended last weekend. A play based on the event is set for a one-night performance at the museum on May 7, the 50th anniversary of the crash.

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