Chronicle of the plane crash
June 26, 1959: the crash
Olgiate Olona (Italy), Friday June 26, 1959, 16.33 UTC: a Trans World Airlines (TWA) four-engine Lockheed Super Constellation L-1649A Starliner (reg. number N7313C, msn 1015, named Star of the Severn) crashed in a violent thunderstorm after it departed from Malpensa Airport, some 30 miles north of Milan, at 16.20.
TWA flight 891 had originated in Athens on June 26, 1959 at 9.15 with the Lockheed Super Constellation L-1649A number N8083H with six passengers on board and had stopped in Rome-Ciampino at 11.15. At Rome there was a change of plane and the flight was resumed on the Lockheed L-1649A plane No. N7313C; other 15 persons boarded. 40 passengers boarded in Milan-Malpensa Airport. It was bound for Paris-Orly (arrival time 18.00, landing of 28 passengers, departure at 19.00) and Chicago-O’Hare (arrival at 5.40 of the day after).
The last signal had been received by Saronno beacon at 16.32, immediately before the accident.
The aircraft was struck by lightning while flying at 11.000 feets above the ground, disintegrated with a tremendous explosion, burst into flames and crashed in several charred parts scattered over an area of five miles. Many astonished witnesses saw the aircraft falling down in flames.
Aircraft debris were found very far from each other: the rudders on the wall of a textile factory, the four engines between the villages of Marnate and Castellanza, the fuselage and the main gear few meters away from “Cascina Agnese” in the wooded area of “via per Marnate” in Olgiate Olona, the right wing more than five hundred meters away from the fuselage in a cornfield near the hamlet of Marnate.
Police and rescuers arrived promptly but firemen managed to estinguish the flames only at about 20.00.
Olgiate Olona mayor Carlo Ferrari (who reported the disaster in detail talking at the town Council of Olgiate Olona and in a letter sent to Varese Prefecture) together with his secretary Giovanni Capozza and health official Doctor Lorenzo Fraenza rushed immediately to the place of disaster.
Archbishop of Milan Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini (later Pope Paul VI) together with Olgiate Olona parson Don Aldo Zecchin (who reported the disaster in the parish Liber Chronicus) arrived to the site of crash under furious gusts of rain at about 19.00.
The Cardinal - who left Milan after learning the news about the accident - gave absolution to the remains of the victims mangled, charred and trapped in the wreckage of the fuselage.
Some relatives of the victims from Milan and Lombardy came to Olgiate Olona that same evening: they had learned the news from the media since journalists and photographers arrived quickly to the site of the accident.
Reporters of journals, Il corriere della sera and other local newspapers and radio-reporters didn’t reach Olgiate Olona in short time because of the raging thunderstorm.
The news about the disaster was of international relevance due to the company and aircraft model involved, the number of fatalities and the origin of victims: sixteen Italians (known businessmen and the sister of atomic scientist Enrico Fermi were among them), thirty-six Americans (fourteen had Italian origins), four Britons, seven French, three Chileans (the wife and the children of Chilean consul in Tokyo), one German, one Israeli, one Egyptian.
Newspaper reporters gathered the dramatic story of the eyewitnesses who were still in shock on the evening of June 26, 1959: the members of four families living in Cascina Agnese (Adobati, Barbieri and Facchinetti families), Busto Arsizio mayor Giovanni Rossini (he was in the courtyard of a company near the site of the crash), the military stationed in Solbiate Olona and all the people who witnessed the crash of the big TWA aircraft.
The sad event also caused extra work and expenses for the administrative apparatus of Olgiate Olona’s Municipality, called upon to manage such exceptional emergency.
26/06/1959 - TV report
Videoclip titled EraOggi and focused on what happened on June 26, 1959. It’s a TV news of the time dedicated to the plane crash: the original footage shot by TV reporters on the day of the accident shows the facade of Cascina Agnese, the rescuers and the policemen working at the crash site, the wreckage of the aircraft, the front page of La Notte newspaper, and a picture of one on the victims of the crash.
NOTE: we are not able to trace the origins of this videoclip so far - we remain at disposal of the owner of the footage to state the relevant credits if required.
June 27, 1959: the recovery of the 70 victims
The Public Prosecutor of Busto Arsizio gave dispositions to recover the victims of the accident only at dawn of Saturday June 27, 1959. Parson don Zecchin followed every moment of meticulous and macabre research and recomposition of heavily mangled and charred remains of corpses.
It is very hard to put into words the terrifying scenario of the place where the fuselage of Super Constellation crashed: the first lights of day unveiled cruelly a wood become a hell of wreckage and corpses.
Such a tragic vision is unforgettable in the memory of eyewitnesses and rescuers who rushed to the site of the accident. With the same pity they had on June 27, 1959, they told that awful vision to the author of the books dedicated to the air disaster some decades later, in a low voice and with silences that speak much more than words; they remembered that all passengers of TWA flight 891 died in their seats - with the exception of a little girl who was found embraced by one of the two hostesses - with their seatbelts fastened while the Super Constellation was exploding in the sky. Then the terrible and violent crash of the fuselage mutilated the bodies of the victims whose remains were scattered everywhere on the ground by becoming a single thing with black wreckage of the aircraft and with the ground.
The boarding list of flight 891 reported 68 people perished in the accident, 59 passengers (including three officials from TWA) and a crew of 9. Instead, the victims were 70: the body of a child [Luis Quinteros Jr., ed.] not mentioned on the boarding list was found by rescuers, and a woman [Marfisa Bertolucci, ed.] among the passengers was pregnant and about to give birth. Sixty-nine coffins were lined up and numbered near the crash site; in the coffin number 67 were included the remains of bodies unrecognized and not related to any of the victims.
27/06/1959 - Newsreel
Lucarelli’s historical archive footage shot in Olgiate Olona at the plane crash site on June 27, 1959 - produced in the form of newsreel (probably for RAI radiotelevisione italiana TV station): edited as a TV service of 46 sec. length, with voiceover and solemn and mournful background music - it immortalizes some moments of the day following that of the plane crash and attests what the voiceover describes as a hallucinating picture of horror and death: wreckage of the Super Constellation crashed in via per Marnate street near farm Agnese, the rudder fallen on a perimeter wall in Garottola place, the mobile crane used to extract the fuselage of the ill-fated airplane from the ground, people from Olgiate Olona and onlookers observing the theater of the tragedy from afar, soldiers presiding over the area, investigators and TWA staff, coroners in a white coat, Red Cross nurses, the arrival of a truck loaded with coffins, the pain of the relatives of the seventy immortal lives reaching the scene of the disaster.
NOTE: video provided for documentary purposes by ASCinema - Archivio Siciliano del Cinema, Palermo.
June 29, 1959: the solemn funerals
“We bow our heads in humility. The boundary of life and death is unknown. Mortal life has boundaries that must lead to limitless horizons, for ever and ever.”
monsignor Sergio Pignedoli,
homily of the funerals on June 29, 1959
The caskets were taken to the mortuary chapel set up in the St. John the Baptist church in Busto Arsizio where in the afternoon of Monday June 29, 1959 solemn funerals were celebrated by auxiliary bishop of diocese of Milan monsignor Sergio Pignedoli.
A large crowd attended the solemn funerals, the church was immediately filled with the relatives of the victims and the authorities; thousands of people invaded piazza San Giovanni, via Milano, piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and the neighboring streets. At the time of funerals some remains of the victims were not identified yet while the caskets of some Italians dead were sent to different destinations where funerals and burial took place as per relatives’ request.
At the end of solemn funerals all the caskets were temporarily moved to the cemetery of Busto Arsizio where the identification of remains of the victims still unnamed was continued; during the following two weeks all the caskets were sent to their final destination. Two U.S. victims and the coffin number 67 - defined by the Judicial Authority as coffin with human remains, containing the remains of bodies unrecognized and not related to any of the victims (it contained the remains of two Britons never identified) - were buried in the cemetery of Busto Arsizio.
On June 29, 1959, the remains of Maria Fermi Sacchetti were buried in the cemetery of Olgiate Olona in a grave granted free by the Municipality. Maria was the sister of famous atomic scientist Enrico Fermi; her three sons fulfilled the will of their mother who expressed the desire to be buried where her life was over.
As certified later, the number 67 coffin with human remains, was placed in the niche located in the columbaria of the main cemetery of Busto Arsizio (arch 4F, last row at the top). The inscription on the plaque attests: Sono stati qui raccolti resti mortali delle vittime della sciagura avvenuta il 26 giugno 1959 a Olgiate Olona (trans. here are gathered the mortal remains of the victims of the plane crash happened on June 26, 1959, in Olgiate Olona). Later, the coffin with human remains was moved to the niche located in the columbaria (arch 7E, last row at the top) that - as confirmed by the reconnaissance of June 17, 2010 - contains four of the seventy immortal lives (buried in the cemetery on July 5, 1959): US spouses Michael A. Martino Jr. and Corinne Martino (whose bone remains are in two metal boxes); Britons and work colleagues Albert John Palmer and Percy Charles Nicholls - the ashes of Nicholls’ wife, Irene Amelia Nicholls, were buried in the cemetery of Busto Arsizio in 2010 -, never identified, whose names were reported on the coffin with human remains.
The cause of the disaster: a fatal lightning
Some boards of inquiry were appointed to investigate the causes of the disaster: one of the Public Prosecutor of Busto Arsizio, other three boards made up of technicians and expert of TWA, Italian and U.S. Civil Aviation Authority, insurance company. Senator Ennio Zelioli Lanzini reported on the disaster in the Senate of the Republic.
All those who saw the plane falling did identify in the lightning the cause of the disaster: first the Super Constellation was hit by lightning then exploded, broke into pieces, crashed to the ground in yellow, green and violet flames as it were a torch.
When the plane crashed to the ground no one moan was heard among the wreckage of the fuselage that kept on burning and smoking until the dawn of the following day. Firemen also drew water from the nearby Olona river in order to douse the flames.
The news about the disaster was heard all around the world and shocked the heads of the diocese of Milan and the universal Church in the person of Pope John XXIII who celebrated a Holy Mass in memory of the victims.
In absence of the black box, with regards to the cause of the disaster we refer to the authoritative opinion of major experts in the aeronautics: the plane crash of Olgiate Olona was caused by fatality (the lightning) and the TWA crew of flight 891 (which had proved to be highly qualified), the executives and flight controllers of Malpensa Airport were not responsible for the accident.
Here we report the final verdict of ICAO, International Civil Aviaton Organization (ICAO Accident Digest Circular 62-AN/57 (132-152): “In the absence of other significant concrete evidence, taking into account the stormy weather conditions, with frequent electric discharges, existing in the area at the time of the crash, it may be assumed that the explosion of the fuel vapours contained in tank No.7 was set off, through the outlet pipes, by igniting of the gasoline vapours issuing from these pipes as a consequence of static electricity discharges (streamer corona) which developed on the vent outlets”.
Although “in practice” a lightning could not damage an aircraft, in reality only the lightning seemed to be the origin of the plane crash of Olgiate Olona: exceptional and extremely rare case, the lightning struck the fuel vapors leaking from the tank vent pipes of the right wing by causing the explosion and the crash of the Super Constellation.
The plane crash of Olgiate Olona of June 26, 1959 is to date the fifth worst disaster in civil Aviation in Italy and the most serious crash near the Milan-Malpensa Airport.
The plane crash
The solemn funerals in Busto Arsizio
The funerals in Livraga
Four victims of the plane crash buried in the cemetery of Busto Arsizio
June 2010 - As stated in the book Il disastro aereo del 26 giugno 1959 a Olgiate Olona written by Alberto Colombo and published in 2008, official documents and newspaper articles attest that on Saturday July 5, 1959, 3 p.m. four victims of the plane crash of Olgiate Olona of June 26, 1959 were buried in different graves in the cemetery of Busto Arsizio: Britons Albert John Palmer (born June 1, 1917 in London) and Percy Charles Nicholls (born March 23, 1915 in London) and Americans Michael Martino (born November 25, 1929 in Chicago) and his wife Corinne Martino (born July 22, 1928 in Lombard Village, Dupage, Illinois).
The Sepulture register of the cemetery of Busto Arsizio reports the generality of the dead, their progressive number of sepulture (referred to 1959, respectively: 269, 270, 271, 272; with the specification “died for plane crash in Olgiate Olona”), date and time of sepulture (July 5, 1959, 3 p.m.), location of the graves: Albert John Palmer and Percy Charles Nicholls were buried in field 24 bis, place 1 and 2; Michael Martino and his wife Corinne Martino were buried in field 58, place 88. Said Sepulture register states the following variations. On July 24, 1980, twenty one year after the plane crash, Albert John Palmer’s and Percy Charles Nicholls’ remains were transferred to the burial niche located in the arch 7E, eigth row, loculus number 2. In that same grave Michael Martino’s and Corinne Martino’s remains were transferred on July 3, 1997: since that day the four victims of plane crash of June 26, 1959 buried in Busto Arsizio have rested in peace together. A pink granite tombstone tells: “Palmer Albert Nicholls Percy Martino Michael Martino Corinne In memory of air disaster M. 26-6-1959”.
Therefore the remains of these four victims were buried in two different graves in separate fields first, later they were transferred in the same loculus. According to our research the cemeterial concession of the loculus was renewed on September 19, 1997 with expiration date September 19, 2019.
The niche in the main cemetery of Busto Arsizio (arch 4F) which hosted in 1959 the coffin with human remains
November 2017 - Another historical element is added to the plane crash of Olgiate Olona of June 26, 1959: the niche located in the columbaria of the main cemetery of Busto Arsizio (arch 4F, last row at the top) where the coffin number 67 - defined by the Judicial Authority as coffin with human remains, containing the unidentified remains of the victims of the crash – was placed in 1959. The inscription on the plaque - made of white marble from the 1950s, embellished by a marble vase - attests: Sono stati qui raccolti resti mortali delle vittime della sciagura avvenuta il 26 giugno 1959 a Olgiate Olona (trans. here are gathered the mortal remains of the victims of the plane crash happened on June 26, 1959, in Olgiate Olona). This historical element so far unknown - not included in the book published in 2008, based primarily on the data reported on the burial Register - has emerged thanks to the active and kind collaboration of Busto Arsizio cemetery services contacted for the upcoming expiration (September 19, 2019) of the concession of the niche located in the colombaria of the same cemetery (arch 7E, last row at the top). The concession was signed at the time by the legal representative for Italy of Trans World Airlines (TWA) – the airline no longer exists –, and followed by the Airport Services and Freight Sales manager of TWA operating at Milan-Malpensa Airport. The above mentioned niche in arch 7E – as confirmed by the reconnaissance of June 17, 2010 - contains four of the seventy immortal lives (buried in the cemetery on July 5, 1959): US spouses Michael A. Martino Jr. and Corinne Martino (whose bone remains are in two metal boxes); Britons and work colleagues Albert John Palmer and Percy Charles Nicholls - the ashes of Nicholls’ wife, Irene Amelia Nicholls, were buried in the cemetery of Busto Arsizio in 2010 -, never identified, whose names were reported on the coffin number 67, the coffin with human remains moved here from the niche of arch 4F (today, therefore, probably empty).