Serving the High Plains

The worst bad day

Ninety years ago, Quay County experienced two disasters in just a few hours that killed at least a dozen people and injured more than 40 more.

The cause of both calamities could be traced to one thing - a severe storm system.

Early Aug. 29, 1933, a Transcontinental-Western Air plane, with its pilot apparently disoriented by a heavy thunderstorm, slammed into the side of Mesa Redonda south of Tucumcari. That fiery crash killed all five people aboard, including the two pilots.

Early the same day, a Golden State Limited train plunged into Pajarito Creek after flash flooding from torrential rains undermined abutments at Five Mile Bridge west of Tucumcari. That wreck killed eight people and injured 42.

That evening's Tucumcari Daily News came with the massive headline: "12 KILLED, 42 INJURED." Details from the two disasters took up the entire top half of the page.

Details for this story come from a variety of archived newspaper stories, including from Associated Press reports.

The storm

Local reports stated the heaviest rain "in several years" fell in Quay County just before the disasters.

The Clovis News Journal reported rain began falling "in sheets." Later reports stated about 2 1/2 inches fell in a short period.

"Water swept over highways in many places and fields of feedstuffs were flooded," the report stated. "One Quay County farmer described the rainfall as being 'so heavy you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.'"

Flooding was so extensive, the main Melrose-Quay-Tucumcari road became impassable.

A bridge over Plaza Largo Creek washed out, as were bridges over Revuelto Creek. The U.S. 66 bridge across Pajarito Creek also was closed after it was found to be undermined by floodwaters and was sagging.

Travel in other parts of southern Quay County was difficult due to floods. Telephone communications also were disrupted.

The plane

TWA airship NC 9076, en route to Albuquerque from Amarillo, crashed into the southwest wall of Mesa Redonda during a raging thunderstorm early Aug. 29.

The dead included the pilots, a couple from Albuquerque and their 3-year-old granddaughter. They all died instantly.

One of the first people at the scene said wreckage was strewn over several hundred yards, including a jumping jack presumably owned by the child.

A little black, curly haired dog was found whimpering at the site with a broken front foot. Authorities weren't sure whether the canine was on the plane or whether it was injured by flying debris while walking through the area.

Rancher T.M. Davis and his wife, who lived near the mesa, said he heard the roar of the airplane shortly before the crash.

"They peered into the night to see the two landing lights glow softly through the storm," the report stated. "A few minutes later there was an explosion they heard for a distance of four miles, and then a fire."

Davis later recalled he heard the explosion at 1:41 a.m.

Authorities began to search for the plane after it failed to land at Albuquerque as scheduled.

At first light, Davis and a sheriff's deputy went to the crash site.

Muddy roads delayed the arrival of ambulances to remove the bodies.

TWA authorities took charge of the crash site. Reports stated the wreckage would be dismantled and carried down the side of the mesa via manpower because it was impossible to reach the site except by foot. Horses could get no closer than a quarter-mile.

Deputies were stationed at the site to prevent curious onlookers from carrying away parts of the plane as souvenirs. Others "pitched in" to help remove the bodies.

A few days later, Amarillo airport officials reported the pilot might have tried to radio about rough flying conditions shortly before the cash.

A wireless station at the airport received an unintelligible message from the plane several minutes after he reported his position near Tucumcari.

"The message was so garbled that none of it could be made out ... but it was believed that he was trying to tell of some motor trouble," the report stated.

It was believed the pilot, finding it impossible to continue to his destination because of the storm, had turned toward Clovis to spend the night at an emergency landing field there.

According to a coroner's jury, the plane passed one point of Mesa Redonda, and the pilot apparently turned sharply to the southeast. Seconds later, the aircraft crashed into another point of the mesa. It was believed the pilot had thought he had rounded the mesa's southernmost tip.

It was Quay County's worst air tragedy until 1972, when Lockheed plane missed the Tucumcari Municipal Airport runway due to poor visibility and crashed, killing five and injuring six.

The train

Flash flooding from the same severe storm undermined the 100-foot-long rail bridge west of Tucumcari, especially its easternmost section. Nearby residents reported a wall of water about 30 feet high had swept down the arroyo.

The train accident occurred just before sunrise. A Southern Pacific train had safely crossed the bridge just 30 minutes before.

The train moved slowly in a heavy rain. The engineer, mindful of the recent rain and floods, stopped the train a mile from the 1914 bridge to check the condition of the track.

He then proceeded west, with the train going 20 mph when it reached the span.

The west side of the bridge was strong enough to hold the engine, but as cars rolled across, the combined weight was too much. The east side of the bridge gave way.

Survivors said a sudden lurch occurred as the engine and five of the 11 cars plunged off the trestle and piled up in the flooded creek. The lights went out in the cars. A number of witnesses said they and others were knocked unconscious by the impact.

"Screams of the injured and dying, prayers and curses mingled in the darkness and confusion as terrified passengers sought to escape," one report read.

One fallen coach was entirely submerged by floodwaters, and authorities feared that several had drowned.

One woman from Los Angeles said two nuns were terribly burned by escaping steam from the wrecked engine. She said passengers who were unhurt tried to help the others in her car.

An 11-year-old survivor told a reporter she was pulled out of a window of one of the coaches that was half-submerged in floodwaters.

The conductor of the train left from one of the rear coaches that remained on the track and walked nearly an hour on rain-soaked roads to Tucumcari to summon aid. He trudged through waist-deep water in some spots.

The injured were taken to Tucumcari's 16-bed hospital, then to hotel rooms when the facility became full. Survivors who could travel took a special train eastward through Dalhart, Texas.

Casualties were from Illinois, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. That included engineer C.F. Craft and fireman James Randall, both of Tucumcari.

Rail traffic was rerouted over Santa Fe Railroad tracks from Vaughn via Clovis to Amarillo while the bridge was repaired.

According to the History in Santa Fe website's account of the disaster, "The years following the crash, people found trinkets, feathers, jewelry and combs in the immediate area of the train wreck. Many believed that these items were remnants from the disaster that had floated up from beneath the riverbed.

"The townsfolk also believed that the souls of those who perished that day were now apparitions and wandered in the vicinity. Some people claimed to have seen the ghosts of men, women and children in the area."

The train wreck remains the worst rail accident that Tucumcari has recorded.

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