2 Students Killed in Schoolyard After Midair Crash

By Jeff Meade — April 10, 1991 2 min read

(Special to Education Week)

Lower Merion, Pa.--School officials here last week began the process of recovering from the plane crash at Merion Elementary School that claimed the lives of U.S. Senator John Heinz and four others on the aircraft, along with those of two students playing in the schoolyard below.

The crash occurred shortly after noon when the twin-engine plane carrying the Pennsylvania Republican collided with a helicopter over this densely populated Philadelphia suburb, showering flaming debris on the schoolyard below.

Mr. Heinz, another passenger, and the pilot of the plane were killed when it slammed into the ground in front of the school. Also killed were the pilot and co-pilot of the helicopter, which crashed and erupted in a ball of flame behind the school.

Two children playing in the schoolyard apparently were struck by the debris and were killed instantly, officials said. Another child was critically injured with burns over 65 percent of his body and was flown to a local burn-treatment center.

Two girls, ages 6 and 8, also were were treated for minor burns at local hospitals and released. Names of all the children were withheld.

A school employee, John Fowler, burned his hands while trying to beat out one child’s flaming clothing. He was also treated and released.

Jill Bressler, a school-district psychologist, ran to the aid of the children in the schoolyard, and tried to help one little girl who had been injured by the falling helicopter. “Most of her clothes were burned off,” she said. “She was already dead.”

For most of the long afternoon following the crash, frightened parents ran up the driveway, and ducked under a yellow police barricade to collect their children inside the school. One woman in a business suit hurtled past reporters, her face a mask of grief, when she was stopped in the driveway by a neighbor who said, “I saw him, and he’s fine.” The woman in the business suit gave a small cry of relief, and she hugged her friend as they walked into the school.

About 60 children were in school at the time, and nearly a hundred 1st and 2nd graders were just beginning recess after finishing lunch.

‘Elephants on the Ceiling’

“It sounded like elephants walking on the ceiling,” said Joe Mandes, a 5th-grade mathematics teacher. “I looked out my window into the play ground, and I saw the fire. The first thing that ran through my head was, ‘God, I hope nobody was out there.’ And then I saw kids running.”

Mr. Mandes credited the quick thinking of a teacher’s aide, Tho Oldham, who was on the playground, for saving many lives.

Ms. Oldham, who fled Vietnam in 1974, said that the flash in the sky when the aircraft collided reminded her of a missile attack during the war.

“The kids were all over the place,” she said. “But when I blew my whistle, they all ran and followed me. Behind us, everything was on fire.”

The timing of the crash also may have spared lives. If the accident had happened 15 minutes later, Ms. Oldham said, hundreds of children from the upper grades would have been emptying out of the lunchroom and into the playground. And the lower grades, she said, would have been lining up in their usual place to go back inside. Most of the helicopter’s wreckage lay where they would have been standing.

Virtually the only recognizable piece of the helicopter, the tail section, came to rest just a few yards from a jungle gym and slide in the rear of the school.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1991 edition of Education Week as 2 Students Killed in Schoolyard After Midair Crash