“Anatomy of a Crash Scene”–Action Photographs of Flight 242 by Clifford Davids

FA Sandy Purl at the 20th reunion in 1997

Flight Attendant Sandy Purl at the Flight 242 reunion in 1997

Even before the co-pilot of Southern Airways Flight 242 had lowered the landing gear and touched down dead center on a narrow highway in New Hope, Georgia, the first responders had begun to gear up for the fiery rescue. Bobby Bruce, an employee of the city of Dallas, GA, had been working on top of Cemetery Hill when he saw the crippled jetliner falling to earth. He immediately radioed the alert from the mobile unit in his city truck to the nearby Dallas Police Department dispatcher. It was the first warning in what quickly become a tragic tsunami that completely engulfed the rural community.

The Dallas Police Department swiftly contacted the Dallas Fire Department by radio, alerting Assistant Fire Chief Elsberry at the Standard Oil gas station where he worked. The nearby Union City FD was also quickly notified.

Principal M.A. Hornsby of the New Hope Elementary School was in the school parking lot when he saw the plane going down. He returned to his office to call the authorities, but by then the nearby telephone poles had been destroyed by the downed aircraft. He promptly ran back outside and flagged down a nearby car with a CB (citizens band) radio, asking the driver to call in the accident via channel 9 on the emergency frequency.

New Hope Volunteer Fire Chief John Clayton witnessed the plane crash from his front yard, just up the road from the volunteer fire department. He took immediate charge and initially directed the firefighting, evacuation, and emergency treatment of the injured. His Assistant Chief Johnnie Wigley suffered burns on his back and arms as he ran into the flaming plane to evacuate the survivors. Their men, who had just installed new hoses on one of their pumpers, responded immediately and extinguished the crash fires within 30 minutes. All of them were honored by the governor for their heroism that day.

Dr. Jerry Worthy, the FAA Medical Examiner who was in the area at the time, quickly arrived at the scene and took charge of all the triage efforts. He also designated a vacant warehouse in Dallas as a morgue and placed a ward clerk from the local hospital in charge. A total of 72 people died from the crash, including nine people on the ground–but there were also 22 lucky passengers who survived, including both of the flight attendants.

Within 20 minutes of the accident, a virtual battalion of first responders had converged on the scene from nearby communities—police and fire departments, ambulance and civil defense personnel, local citizens, and the “just lookers.” At least 48 ambulances responded from sixteen separate locations including three hospitals and the nearby Dobbins AFB. Survivors were sent to five separate hospitals by ambulance, school bus, and helicopter.

When the Cobb County Fire Chief David Hilton arrived 30 minutes after the crash, he estimated that there were over 250 “sightseers” in the area disrupting the removal of the victims. He assumed control of the scene upon the direct request of Chief Clayton, and immediately ordered that the area be roped off. He then ordered the rescue trucks to move the cockpit and the forward/mid-cabin parts of the smoking wreckage so they could search the area more easily and remove the remaining bodies. It was controlled chaos, but they got it done. Incredibly, all of the survivors were sent to area hospitals within the hour.

The 10 photographs below were taken immediately after the crash by Joe Parker, a third generation newspaperman who still works at the Dallas New Era, the local newspaper that was founded 17 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Parker family has directed the New Era since 1924, and they still run it today. Joe has worn many hats over his long news career, including one as the former crime scene photographer for the Sheriff’s Department. The man has a steady hand, and a sharp eye behind the camera.

He was among the first photographers to arrive at the crash scene on April 4, 1977, and the iconic pictures he took on that tragic afternoon still resonate. Many thanks, Joe.


View up Highway 92 Spur (now Dallas-Acworth Hwy of crash landing site

The view up Highway 92 Spur (now Dallas-Acworth Hwy) of the forced landing site in New Hope, GA


View of car wreckage in front of Newmans Store

Looking down Highway 92 Spur towards Dallas from in front of Newman’s Store. The photo was taken while Joe Parker was standing on top of the Union Fire Department’s fire knocker.


The flames consume Newman's Store

Damaged electrical wires were said to have ignited the gasoline from the broken pumps at Newman’s Store


Putting out the flames in Newman's Store.

Putting out the flames at Newman’s. The photographer was standing in front of Chief Clayton’s house.


View of the burned and destroyed Newmans Store

A grim scene afterwards at Newman’s Store. Everyone inside miraculously escaped alive.


The burned remains of Southern Airways Flight 242

New Hope Fire Department Volunteer dousing the last of the fire in the wreckage of Flight 242


First responders searching for survivors

Firefighters and a group of local citizens searching for survivors


Putting out the fire

First Responders from the community looking for victims


The remains of the tail section

The remains of the tail section


First responder walking away in shock from what he has just seen at the crash site

Walking away in shock from the crash site of Southern Airways Flight 242


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14 Responses to “Anatomy of a Crash Scene”–Action Photographs of Flight 242 by Clifford Davids

  1. Maye Wiggins says:

    It just goes to show you how important our first responders are. God bless them all. Good story.

    • cbdavids says:

      Thanks Maye, and how right you are. The first responders on the Flight 242 crash scene were both compassionate and fearless—some of them even entered the burning aircraft to help the firefighters carry the injured survivors to safety. Everybody just pitched in wherever and however they could.

      Neighbors gathered bed sheets, pillow cases, and towels to cover the victims and control their bleeding. They also assisted the survivors who were able to walk and brought them into their homes to provide first aid. Others in the area carried in 4×8 sheets of plywood and helped to transport the badly injured victims to the cars, buses, and ambulances arriving on the scene. The whole community pulled together.

  2. jolee kitchen says:

    Great story! Joe Parker is my dad :)

  3. tifferjean says:

    So proud of that Town. Thanks for sharing, Cliff.

  4. Cyndy Smith says:

    I remember when this happened, all the ambulances flying past the house. These are some amazing, poignant photographs, they say so much about that tragic day.

  5. Suzanna says:

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing Cliff:) Joe is also my dad! Best, Suzanna

  6. Robin Gilbert says:

    Beautiful photos of a horrific scene. They preserve the great efforts of the emergency crews, some of whom could easily have been victims themselves or family members of victims. They put aside their personal safety to do all they could for strangers in peril.

    The New Hope community is proof that people can heal, grow, learn, and remember–the human spirit is strong.

  7. Danny Echols says:

    Fifth picture down, on the bottom right you can see a tarp, and under this tarp lay the bodies of one of the young mothers with her small son that were killed in the crash. I found them there and then covered them up. I am also in the photo with my back to the camera in front of the burned building, wearing a baseball cap.

    • cbdavids says:

      Mr. Echols–Your intimate knowledge of the fifth photograph, as both a firefighter and a first responder, adds a tragic new depth to its detail. Thank you for sharing this information, and thank you for all of the help you have given me throughout this project.

  8. Sadie Burkhalter Hurst says:

    Cliff–Thank you for making the effort to put all of this together. I’ve learned more because of your efforts. We all did what we could that day, and since then many of us have chosen to use the experience to better our lives and continue to help others. I saw the tragedy, but I also saw miracles taking place during that time. It may not be easy for some to know that “good things” came from this, but the airline industry changed the way pilots were trained, and emergency groups were established to help families and survivors after something like this. Those were good things. Thank you again.


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