Forty years ago, May 3, 1968, a passenger plane flying from Houston to Dallas crashed in a pasture near Dawson, killing all 85 passengers and crew on board. At the time, it was the worst aviation disaster in Texas history, and is still remembered as the worst event in Dawson’s past. However, many residents also remember it proudly, for, as soldiers and emergency crews worked around the clock under cruel conditions to salvage the wreckage, and the high school gym became a mass mortuary, the townspeople brought food and coffee, even their sheets from home, the churches stayed open, all doing whatever was within their modest powers to help.

“It rallied the town,” said Conrad Newton III. “I can remember the ladies of the Garden Club making sandwiches to make life a little easier for the solders, especially the soldiers.”

Braniff Flight 352 was a Lockheed Electra, a four-propeller airplane carrying 85 live passengers and one body — a Vietnam casualty on its way home. As the plane met up with a violent storm just east of Dawson, the pilot tried to go around, but lost the fight.

One of the first people on the scene was Doug Lenox, who was 24 in 1968. Lenox was out spraying a field on that Friday afternoon when the storm came sweeping in from the north. He took shelter in the Gulf gas station on the edge of town on FM 709, not far from where he now lives.

He and some others rushed back outside when the explosion happened. “All you could see was a ball of fire,” Lenox recalled.

Lenox and his friend Ronnie Chasteen went into the pasture, hiking through the mud until they came over a small rise to find the still-burning wreckage.

“When we left the filling station, we thought it was a fighter plane,” Lenox explained. “I just happened to look down, and Ronnie was about to step on a foot that had been cut off at the ankle, and that’s when we realized what we’d walked into.”

As a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, Lenox helped with the recovery of bodies for two more days. Lenox at 68 is a blue-eyed man, slow-speaking and tall, with a porch swing that overlooks the crash site.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said.

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Corsicana residents Dean and Lee Montgomery and their two small children were driving to Waco along Texas Highway 31 in their 1967 Chevrolet station wagon when they pulled over onto the shoulder, unable to continue in the storm.

“We were sitting still on the highway because it was too bad to drive,” Lee Montgomery recalled. “We couldn’t have opened a door, the wind was that strong. It pushed that heavy old station wagon back onto the highway.”

As they waited for the storm to abate, they saw an enormous flash of light in the sky “like the sun was coming up in the clouds,” Dean said, and then the debris began to fall.

Lee stayed with the children while Dean went with a highway patrolman to look for the crash site. Two days later, they couple returned in a small plane, and they described a wreckage trail two miles long.

Dean was later called to testify in court about the crash. At the time, Dean Montgomery was a pilot for Central Airlines, and he clearly recalled the FAA investigation’s conclusion — pilot error.

“When he went into the cloud it was almost a tornado. He tried to get out, and when he pulled that split-S (maneuver), it tore the wing off. It just yanked the wings off it,” Dean Montgomery said. Over the years, he’s wondered repeatedly about the passengers, and their last terrible moments.

“They were alive until they hit the ground,” he said.

Among the dead were several doctors and their wives, returning home to Dallas from a conference in Houston; Joseph E. Lockridge, one of the first African Americans to be elected to the Texas House of Representatives since Reconstruction; a number of federal government workers; oilmen with Mobil, Continental and General American Oil; five crewmembers, four other Braniff employees, half a dozen soldiers with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, and the office manager for the Great National Life Insurance Company of Fort Worth.

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Charles Renfro, now 73, was the mayor of Dawson in 1968.

“I remember hearing the noise, and we went to the site out there,” Renfro said. “We opened the gym for them to bring the bodies in, and then it was total chaos. Everybody from nine states came down and interfered with the rescue people.”

The high school gym, once filled with echoing cheers of pep rallies and basketball games, became a temporary morgue as body parts were brought in for two days and nights, and the work of reassembly began. Once a person was clearly identifiable, his or her remains were taken across the street to the funeral home.

Hundreds of rescue workers and soldiers were brought into town to assist with the recovery. Help came from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Corsicana Emergency Corps, Texas Department of Public Safety, ambulance workers from Corsicana, Waco, Hubbard and Mexia, and soldiers from as far away as Fort Hood.

Conrad Newton III, now the bank president in Dawson, was a red-headed 16-year-old boy in 1968.

“If you recall, this was two weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Vietnam War was at its height. The climate of the country was fractious,” Newton explained. But having grown up in sleepy Dawson, he and his friends found the excitement of the crash fascinating, and they were in the middle of it whenever the adults weren’t looking.

The plane went down in late afternoon, while it was still daylight, and Newton and a friend went out immediately to view the site. It didn’t take them long to realize they didn’t belong there.

“It got to be a haunting mess,” he said.

His father, Conrad Newton II, was president of the bank then, and he kept the bank open all night long to allow access to telephones for the people flooding into the town. The aftermath was almost as bad.

“On day two and three, the town had a horrific odor,” Newton said, explaining: “The gym was not air conditioned.”

The workers, at least some of whom Newton recalled were student morticians from Waco, put screens on the windows, and smoked cigars to mask the smell of decay.

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One of the rescue workers in Dawson that week was James Sykes, who was a volunteer with the Corsicana Emergency Corps. Forty years later, he’s still a volunteer with the corps.

Sykes said he got the call to respond to a plane crash in Dawson at 5:15 p.m. on a Friday. Like Lenox, he also expected a small wreck, until he got to the site.

Over the course of the weekend, the volunteers and soldiers marched in straight lines up and down the rolling hills of western Navarro County with sacks, picking up anything that might be connected to the crash.

“We did that for two or three days, picking up every little part we could find,” Sykes said.

One person was pulled almost completely intact from the wreckage, Sykes recalled. It was the body of the soldier killed in Vietnam earlier, protected from the impact by his coffin.

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When people in Dawson think about that crash now, they refer questions to Margie Hill, now 81, who still lives in her same house across the street from the crash site. However, when the plane went down that Friday afternoon, Margie wasn’t home.

Her husband worked at a lumber yard in Hubbard in 1968, and as the weather turned black and frightening, she fled west with her 10-year-old son, she explained. She got as far as her mother’s house before her husband arrived and they all went home. The plane crash was evident from their front yard.

“It was something else, I tell you,” Hill said. “By the time we got here, Doug and Ronnie had already been up there and they said ‘you can’t help anybody.’”

She sent her daughter to the store and made coffee for the rescue workers and reporters who came throughout the night to use the phone.

Hill’s family now owns the pasture where most of the wreckage fell. Her daughter has a trailer home within a stone’s throw of the site, and they’ve occasionally plowed up what are clearly airplane parts that embedded themselves into the mud on that rainy day. Hill said she still gets the occasional visitor, who wants to see where it happened.

Besides the curious and reporters, she’s also been visited by the adult son of one of the people killed in the crash. Another time, the wife of a victim showed up with a concrete bench, to be placed under the shady oaks in the pasture.

It was a major event in Dawson’s history, but it didn’t change the town significantly, Renfro said.

“It made lots of people afraid to fly, but back then, not many could afford to fly,” he said. “The people who worked in the gym, the volunteers who worked with the bodies, they were affected. It changed it for a while, but now there’s nothing but us old people around who remember much about it.”

The permanent reminders do exist in Dawson for the next generation. There is a marble marker in the city park, surrounded by blooming roses. City hall has a wooden plaque with the names of each of the people killed on the plane. And downtown, as a subtle reminder of Dawson’s best and worst hours, still stands the gym, almost unchanged since 1968. Only the flooring was replaced.

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Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at jacobs@corsicanadailysun.com

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