Imagine a jet flying 400 miles per hour at 28,000 feet altitude plummeting to the ground in the middle of the Island, slamming into a multi-story apartment complex then bursting into flames.
For those who find that hard to fathom or think it's the plot line for a new action adventure film, you are either newcomers to the Island or too young to remember what for many Alamedans was a defining moment in their lives.
Locals of a certain age have stored the image of what happened Wednesday, Feb. 7, 1973 at 8:13 p.m. right next to their memories of the day President Kennedy was assasinated, John Lennon was gunned down and the Twin Towers fell.
For those who witnessed the deadly accident or saw its immediate aftermath, the crash of the jet into the four-story Tahoe Apartments at 1814 Central Avenue, smack dab in the middle of the Island, was a life-changing moment.
The plane that crashed was actually one of two U.S. Navy A-7E Corsair II jet interceptors that were flying together on a routine training flight to Sacramento from the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Fresno. (Yes, that's right, this was not a jet flying in or out of the former Naval Air Station Alameda as some have assumed over the years.)
The impact, explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the apartment house and spread to three adjacent apartment buildings.
The pilot and ten people on the ground were killed. Over two dozen more were injured.
(To get a sense of the size of the apartment it hit, you can see an aerial photograph of the Sycamore Apartments (Former site of Tahoe Apartments) here.)
A detailed and harrowing account of the crash can be found on this site of notable California aviation disasters. Here are some excerpts from that report:
"One of the jets, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward, 28, inexplicably broke from the formation. Moments later, the pilot of the second Corsair, flight leader Lt. John Pianetta, noticed that Ward’s jet was no longer flying alongside his own aircraft and radioed Oakland Air Traffic Control that he had 'lost his wing man.'”
Pianetta was given permission to turn back to look for Ward’s Corsair and as he banked his aircraft to try to locate the missing jet, he witnessed a fiery explosion erupt far below, amidst the twinkling lights of the city of Alameda.
Lt. Ward’s jet, traveling at more that 400 mph, had plunged out of the nighttime sky at a steep angle and slammed into the four-story Tahoe Apartments building at 1814 Central Avenue in the center of the city....
Over the next several days, investigators sifting through the smoldering rubble determined that 11 people, including Lieutenant Ward, the jet’s pilot, had been killed in the disaster. Twenty-six other people were treated at nearby hospitals and eventually released....
A Navy board of inquiry, formed at the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station to investigate the crash, heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including two civilian metallurgists. One, Charles F. Choa, told the Navy board that he had found evidence of a cockpit fire involving the pilot’s oxygen hose, and that the in-flight blaze was “very near” Ward’s oxygen mask.
The second metallurgist, Mario Lara, told the panel that while performing lab tests, he had managed to create a similar blaze with a glowing cigarette. Lara testified that while a lighted match took too long to produce the type of blaze present in the Corsair’s cockpit, the burning cigarette touched off the oxygen hose “immediately.” Asked whether he could determine the cause of the fire, Lara said “any flame or spark” — although he did not specifically blame it on a lit cigarette.
You can listen to a detailed and compelling oral history of the event from former Alameda mayor Terry LaCroix at the California Digital Story Telling Project website.