All of the chiefs in the Paulding County Volunteer Fire Department knew something had to change. The county had no formal fire protection program in place, and many of the men who volunteered as fire fighters needed more extensive training. Funding was difficult to come by, so many of the stations were supported in part through local barbecues, church raffles, turkey shoots, and door to door donations. Personal phone calls would serve as the notice to gear up for a fire. Not surprisingly, the volunteers would often reach into their own pockets to pay for badly needed fire equipment and other required provisions.
Danny Echols, the first chief of the Paulding County Fire Chiefs’ Association, said the central communication system at the time was located at the Sheriff’s Department, with two-way radios in most of the firefighting vehicles. If a fire required additional manpower from the surrounding communities, the call would go out through the Georgia State Fire Mutual Aid Frequency. They made it work because they had no choice. But on the afternoon of April 4, 1977, that patchwork system would be tested in a way that none of the chiefs could have ever imagined – it was the day Southern Airways Flight 242 lost both engines in a hellacious hailstorm and came crashing down in rural New Hope, GA.
John R. Clayton was chief of the New Hope Volunteer Fire Department in 1977, and he lived just up the road from the department’s small red brick station on Highway 92. He also witnessed Southern 242′s forced landing from the time it demolished Newman’s Grocery store until it came to a fiery halt across from his house. The death toll would have been much higher that afternoon if he and his volunteers hadn’t responded so quickly – his men were the first on the scene and were the ones who put out the crash fires. He also helped to organize the rescue and recovery effort, loading the 22 survivors into the ambulances, buses, and helicopters that rapidly converged on the crash site.
After the accident, Chief Clayton traveled to fire conventions all around the country describing how his small volunteer fire department had played such a big role in saving so many lives. He was a “Type A” personality who moved at 90 mph and threw himself into everything he did. He later moved to Alabama, and when he died at 67 years old the obituary in the local paper called him “The Hero of the ’77 Paulding Air Crash.”
The eyewitness account below, which John Clayton gave to the National Transportation Safety Board the day after the accident, describes the forced landing as it unfolded: he and the other first responders performed above and beyond the call of duty on that chaotic day. Bo Pounds, whose Metro Ambulance service played a major role transporting many of the crash survivors to area hospitals, said it best: “We did some kind of job.”
–Clifford B. Davids
New Hope Volunteer Fire Department
– New Hope, GA –
National Transportation Safety Board
Dept. of Transportation, Washington, D.C.
– STATEMENT OF WITNESS –
While in my driveway with my wife, son, and daughter, I heard a HUMM and I thought it was a tornado. I told my wife to go to the basement and I ran down the driveway towards the road.
Looking to my left I saw the aircraft over the highway and about in front of the fire station. The wings appeared to be level and the nose slightly down.
The plane came down and the left side collided with two gasoline pumps, a station wagon, pickup truck and two automobiles in front of Newman’s store, which is just this side of the fire station. After the collision with the objects in front of Newman’s store the tail started colliding with the 50 or 60 foot tall pine trees in front of the residences on the other side of the highway and the tail separated and the fuselage started to break up. I observed personnel and debris flying through the trees.
The wreckage came to a rest with the fuselage components in front of my house and the tail section further along the wreckage path. Moments later there was a flash fire in front of Newman’s store and almost simultaneously a flash fire at the tail section. One female survivor came up to me and I saw several other survivors coming out of the wreckage.
Our 1,500 gallon tanker moved down the highway to a point in front of Newman’s store and a 2 ½ inch hose was run back to the fire plug in front of the fire station. This unit was used to extinguish the fire that destroyed the store. Simultaneously, our 500 gallon truck was brought down the highway towards the tail section while playing out a 2 ½ inch hose to the fire plug in front of the fire station, and this unit was used to extinguish the fire at the opposite end of the wreckage path.
About three minutes after the crash John Wigley stopped a 76 passenger school bus in front of my residence and six to eight survivors got aboard. Jimmy Whitley, who operates the AMOCO station across from the fire station drove the bus and transported the survivors to the Paulding Memorial Hospital in Dallas, about four miles west of the crash site. We loaded four more seriously injured survivors and they were taken to the hospital. While this was being accomplished I observed residents on the opposite side of the highway directing and assisting survivors toward the rear of their houses and away from the fire.
Gusty 20 to 30 mile winds were blowing from the southwest at the time of the accident which gave the plane a tail wind. I don’t know what the ceiling was, but the other fireman said it looked like it may have been 3,000 to 5,000 feet.
After the impact at Newman’s store I saw one set of landing gear wheels coming down the road that stopped on my side of the highway short of my position. I don’t remember seeing the landing gear before the collision with the objects at Newman’s store. The noise I heard just before the collision was just a steady HUMM with no variance at all. I don’t know whether this noise was associated with the engines or not.
–-John R. Clayton (April 5, 1977)
The Crash Site in New Hope, GA
– April 4, 1977 –