New Hope Memorial Flight 242 board members Loran Wills (from left), Peggy Wills, Hugh Walters and Cherry Waddell are at the site of the current marker. On April 4, 1977, Southern Airways Flight 242 crashed in Paulding County, killing more than 70 people. A nonprofit organization, New Hope Memorial Flight 242, plans a memorial. Currently there is a marker not far from the spot where the plane, coming from Alabama, crashed through pine trees and burst apart in flames. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Flight 242: Survivors, kin relive April 4 crash nearly 4 decades later

Richard Carter is struck by how the darkest day of his life began so routinely.

It was April 4, 1977. Carter and his 19-year-old wife, Kathy Ann, were in the kitchen, talking about her plans for the day.

She, her sister and a sister-in-law and their four children were going to Marietta to shop for Easter.

Out of the blue, she asked her husband what would he do if something happened to her. Honey, don’t talk like that, he said.

Was it a premonition?

“In six or seven hours, she was gone,” he said.

Southern Airways Flight 242 would soon begin its journey from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Huntsville then Atlanta. During the flight, the weather quickly deteriorated. Tornado watches were issued for parts of Alabama and Georgia.

The DC-9 encountered fierce hail. It was so severe that the engines flamed out and the plane began losing altitude.

In New Hope, Kathy Carter was in the couple’s new red Toyota Corolla hatchback with the others, including her 5 1/2-month-old son, Jeffrey. They were parked at a general store, and one of the women went back in to buy bananas for a pudding.

They must have seen the plane, with a crew that included Captain Bill McKenzie and First Officer Lyman Keele, as it broke through the sky. The plane had lost its engines. It clipped the gas tank where the car sat. There was no time to escape. Their car burst into flames, killing them instantly.

The plane shaved power poles and trees before smashing into the ground, narrowly missing houses.

Carter was told his wife died clutching their son close to her body. They were buried that way.

‘The wounds are still raw’

Cherry Waddell is busy preparing for what has become an annual memorial service and survivors’ reunion in Paulding County.

She is the coordinator for the Paulding County Library Services and president of New Hope Memorial Flight 242, which began in 2007 to keep the memory of the victims alive and to aid in the healing process.

The nonprofit wants to build a monument about a quarter mile from the crash site.

“Nobody wants that in their front yard because everyone would be stopping,” she said.

“The wounds are still raw,” said Waddell, who lost a great-aunt, Berlie Mae Craton, in the disaster. She was hit by debris while in a yard.

Waddell visits a cemetery across from New Hope First Baptist Church. It’s where some of the local victims are buried. The plaque, “The Worst Aircraft Disaster in Georgia History,” includes the names of the 63 passengers and nine people on the ground who died and survivors.

She follows along the path of Flight 242 as it tried an emergency landing on a two-lane highway.

Both pilots died. Two flight attendants survived, as did more than 20 passengers.

“Nobody blames them,” said Waddell. “We think they’re heroes because it could have been worse.

“What tugs at everyone’s heartstrings are those babies,” said a teary Waddell. “They didn’t buy a plane ticket. They had never been up in a plane.”

It was a heartbreaking week, she said. At Easter, she and her family gathered, as they always do, at her mother’s home, but their thoughts were on that stretch of road in New Hope. “It was just a sad, sad Easter.”

‘I just sort of had my bags mentally packed’

Frederick L. Clemens, who now lives in Herndon, Va., was in seat 19 C — an aisle seat — on the flight. He and two friends, fresh from Army basic training, were seated at the rear of the plane. They boarded in Huntsville, and in Atlanta he would take a connecting flight to Philadelphia.

At the time, passengers had designated places to smoke.

Clemens wasn’t a smoker, but he didn’t want to sit alone and joined them in the rear. It may have saved him.

As the plane neared Atlanta, the sky darkened. The ride was rocky. The first sign something was wrong was when the cabin lights went out. Later, they didn’t hear the sounds of the engines.

“People talk about having their lives pass before their eyes or thinking of their families,” he said. “I was totally focused on what was happening in the present. I had some denial. I remember thinking I wish I was on another plane. I was thinking about how I would miss my connection in Atlanta — practical things like that.”

They held hands. “I actually had the experience of God at that moment because you realize it’s over. I just sort of had my bags mentally packed. “

He stared at the orange carpet with a swirling pattern. Then, on his back in the grass looking at the sky. Looking around all he could see was flaming wreckage. The hair was gone on his arms. His skin was “beet red” from burns. He was banged up. He saw one of his friends. “Thank God, we’re alive,” she said, hugging him.

‘What was done was to the best of our ability’

Ronnie Tibbitts, then 21, was a member of the city of Dallas volunteer fire department and was among the first there.

The scene was devastating.

“We were not prepared for that plane to crash, but … common sense kicked in and what was done was done to the best of our ability.”

He and a friend were among those first on the scene. They had nothing but their wits to help. His firefighting equipment was at home.

“The only firefighting equipment I saw was a man with a hose,” he said. “’Help is on the way,’ that’s all I could tell them.”

He made his way toward the wreckage. A man in a green suit with thin stripes of gold was sitting and trying to get his necktie off. His leg was stripped nearly to the bone. They applied a tourniquet. “That’s the only man that I know that we were able to do anything for other than get them on an ambulance.”

Tibbitts said that day changed his life in myriad ways. He won’t fly unless it’s an absolute emergency. When he hears the whirl of helicopter blades, his mind immediately goes back to that day.

“It was a horrific scene,” he recalled. “You saw things that you will never see again. You smelled things you will never smell again. You just did what you could.”

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