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The First Time a Plane Was Bombed


As investigators examine recovered wreckage of the EgyptAir plane for evidence of a bomb, they are commencing a ritual first performed 83 years ago after a United Airlines plane went down on a flight from Newark to Chicago.

FBI reports on the Oct. 10, 1933 crash outside Chesterton, Indiana record witnesses hearing an explosion “such as heard in a quarry or blowing stumps.” The tail section of the plane was found a half mile from the main body.

At the unprecedented prospect that a bomb had bought down an airliner, the FBI took the case. Celebrated G-Man Melvin Purvis set aside his hunt for Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger.

Souvenir hunters had spirited away some of the wreckage, but enough remained for Purvis and his fellow agents to decide that there had been a powerful blast in the area of the blanket compartment adjoining the lavatory at the back of the plane.

The blankets had been singed and there were shredded metal fragments. The lavatory door had been pierced from the inside by a flurry of metal fragments. The lavatory floor had been blown downward and the crew luggage below had been pierced by shrapnel hot enough to char the edges of the holes.

But there had been no flame in the tail section, as would be expected if the explosion had been caused by fuel vapors. The fire had been in the front section, after the plane crashed and the fuel tanks ruptured.

The pilot had been thrown clear before the main fuselage was engulfed. He was killed by trauma, but suffered only minor burns.

The co-pilot and the lone flight attendant had been incinerated, along with the two passengers who had also been trapped inside.

The remaining two of the four passengers aboard in this pioneering period of transcontinental travel were found with the tail section, also dead from trauma, but suffering no burns at all. Their ear drums had been ruptured by the same percussive pressure that had made the lavatory’s toilet bowl convex.

Weather and turbulence were ruled out as factors because two other planes flew that same route with no trouble over that same location within that very hour, one shortly before the crash, the other just 15 minutes after.

“The flying conditions were ideal,” an FBI report says.

The FBI report notes that those aboard the second plane “saw the glare of the fire in flying over.”

The agents turned the forensic aspects of the case over to the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory at Northwestern University. The lab determined that the United Airlines flight had indeed been the first airliner ever brought down by a bomb.

“Examination of the evidence leaves no doubt that prior to the crashing of the plane there was a violent explosion in the rear portion of the plane,” the lab’s final report said. “This explosion was produced by a ‘high explosive’ of the type of nitroglycerin-dynamite of high percentage strength, TNT, or some similar substance.”

The report continued, “The fact that the explosive was the ‘high explosive’ type rather than the ’low explosive’ type is proven by the numerous holes made… by projectiles traveling at very high velocity, such as would be propelled by the shattering force of high explosive, rather than by the push of a low explosive. Gasoline-air moistures are definitely of the low explosive type.”

The FBI sought to determine who had planted this first airliner bomb. There had been strife between United Airlines and the fledgling pilot’s union that September, but the trouble had been settled 10 days before the crash. There was talk that some Chicago gangsters might have been seeking revenge for the authorities having used United to fly two of their buddies to Leavenworth prison, but that was also discounted.

One of the passengers, a 45-year-old onetime grocer from Chicago named Emil Smith, had been seen holding a package wrapped in brown paper. And he had purchased life insurance shortly before boarding. He was nonetheless ruled out as a suspect.

“There were reports that his package might have contained some high explosive, however, the investigation conducted by the division of investigations disclosed nothing to indicate that Smith had any connection with the explosion, and was a man of good reputation,” an FBI report concludes.

The FBI also ruled out a 24-year-old passenger from Massachusetts named Dorothy Dwyer. But, while investigating her, the agents did record a first instance of the particularly cruel twist that serendipity so often adds to tragedy in airliner bombings.

Dwyer had been on her way to get married in Reno, Nevada when a late ferry caused her to miss the scheduled first leg of her flight from Boston. She caught the next plane only to miss a connection in Newark due to a tire puncture. She made the subsequent flight, the 4:30 p.m., stopping at Cleveland before proceeding on toward Chicago.

Investigators would later find a customer satisfaction card that had been filled out by another passenger, Chicago real estate manager Fred Schendorf. Usual practice would have had flight attendant Alice Scribner distribute the cards to the passengers 25 minutes prior to landing. Schendorf had written that he was “very satisfied.”

That suggested to the FBI that all must have been well in the moments before the bomb detonated, killing seven, including Schendorf and Scribner and poor Dwyer, now a bride never to be because of compounded bad luck.

The FBI reports note that her grieving fiancé flew to Chicago from Reno. He chose to escort her body home aboard a Massachusetts bound train.

The FBI reports also document the first instances of life saving serendipity in an airplane bombing. A businessman tried to get a reservation on the 6 p.m. flight only to be told it was full. He made a reservation on the ill-fated 4:30 p.m. flight and would have been aboard, but got a call just as he was leaving for the airport that a seat had opened up on the later flight.

Another businessman had been about to catch the 4:30 p.m. flight when his office instructed him to change his itinerary and head for another city.

A doctor was scheduled to catch the 4:30 p.m. flight, but he had some last minute business and they decided to catch the next flight. They were aboard the plane that flew over the fiery wreckage.

“[The girlfriend] states there was no other reason for the change made, and considered it just luck for them,” an FBI report says.

As the plane investigation was continued by Special Agent J.J. Keating, the more celebrated Purvis resumed the hunt for Dillinger. Purvis caught up with Public Enemy Number One as he came out of a movie theater with the now famous Lady in Red on July 22, 1934.

The killing of Dillinger became part of FBI lore. The bombing of the United Airlines plane was all but forgotten as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the case formally closed on Sept. 27, 1935.

That long ago case remained unsolved as word came this week of the EgyptAir crash. This latest disaster was assumed by many to be the work of another kind of public enemy, one that has us now thinking “bomb” whenever a plane goes down.

With word that smoke alerts had been triggered minutes before the EgyptAir plane went down this week, some experts began questioning early declarations that the disaster had been the work of terrorists.

The answer will come as investigators once again perform the ritual that began 83 years ago.

Either way, serendipity will no doubt prove once again to have been as deadly to the unlucky as it was life-saving to the lucky.

By Michael Daly