On January 20, 1985, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Miami Dolphins to win Super Bowl XIX. Early the next morning, 250 miles away in Nevada, a group of revelers boarded Galaxy Flight 203, a Lockheed Electra L-188C at the Reno-Cannon (now Reno-Tahoe) International Airport. 68 passengers were returning to Minnesota after spending the weekend celebrating. 17 year-old George Lamson, Jr. sat next to his father on the four engine turbo-prop plane.
Reno Flying Service performed ground service duties, loading the baggage, driving the passengers from the gate to the airplane and fueling the plane. Although it was required, a record of Galaxy 203's weight and balance was never filed. This was only one of the errors made on that cold and clear Nevada night.
An air cart was required to start the engines on the Electra. The ground handling supervisor made a pre-departure check and took his position to the left front of Flight 203 for the engine start. Normally, he would communicate with the aircraft through a headset. But this night, the headset wasn't working. The flight crew began the before-start checklist. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) later revealed it was not done correctly. Outside the plane, engines one and four were started, but the ground supervisor had to assist one of the ground handlers having a hard time disconnecting the air start hose. He doesn't remember closing the air start access door. Either does the ground handler.
At 01:02:30, Flight 203 departed runway 16R. At 01:03:45, the first officer requested permission to return to the field due to a heavy vibration. At 01:04:14, the Ground Proximity Warning System sounded. At 01:04:30, Flight 203 crashed.
Tim Dees was a six year veteran of the Reno Police Department, pinning on his sergeant stripes only eight months before. Assigned the graveyard shift, roll call hadn't started before he was called to a downtown hotel on a possible kidnapping. "I had never handled one of these before, and I was preoccupied with all the details, not wanting to screw up," Dees says. "I went to the hotel and got the basic details, posted an officer at the crime scene, and started down to the lobby to begin making phone calls. Just as the elevator doors closed, I heard the alert tones on my portable radio. The rest was covered with static, me being inside a metal box surrounded by building." Once outside, he asked the dispatcher what the tones were about. She responded, "A Lockheed L-1011 has crashed into the Meadow Wood Apartments."
"At the time, the L-1011 was one of the largest passenger planes in operation, and the Meadow Wood Apartments was the largest complex in town with hundreds of units," Dees explains. Across the street was the largest shopping center–Meadowood Mall.
Dees didn't think about much as he drove down Virginia St. "When they're telling me the largest passenger plane around flew into that, it's one of those things that is so overwhelming. Where do you even start with something like this? I knew I just had to get there." At the time Reno PD had not prepared for an event like this. "There was no disaster plan to speak of for anything," Dees says.
"When I got a little closer, where my view wasn't obstructed by buildings, you could just see a glow. It was close enough to the apartments, you're thinking, 'Oh my God, it really was the apartments. Fortunately, both the size of the aircraft and the exact location of the crash had been misreported. I don't know whether the pilot had the opportunity to pick his spot or not, but, if he did that action certainly saved easily hundreds of lives." Flight 203 crashed about one mile from airport property with debris scattering into an RV dealership and across US 395.
"It was just the biggest fire I had ever seen," Dees explains. "The flames were at least 60 feet high and extended all the way across Virginia St./US 395 and to 50-100 yards on either side. At 50 yards away, the heat was so intense that the metal frames of my glasses heated up and started to blister my nose and ears." After arriving, he remembers thinking, "I'm watching a bunch of people burn to death, and I can't do a thing about it." Loud explosions rocked the air as several RV propane tanks exploded. "There was a lot of traffic, many people yelling for this and that, people ordering ambulances and ordering fire equipment," Dees explains.
One of Dees' officers arrived first. "Jeff (Kaye) had located one of the crash survivors, who was one of the flight deck officers," Dees says. "He was standing up and walking around, although all of his clothing had been burned away. His skin had a charred, crispy appearance to it. It was eerie. The guy looked like someone out of a horror movie. He looked at me and asked, 'Can you call an ambulance for me? I need to go to the hospital.' There was no alarm in his voice. He was very matter-of-fact. I thought, 'This is a dead man.'" He was taken to the hospital, but died three days later, along with another passenger. Only one person survived. George Lamson, Jr. had been thrown from the plane still buckled into his seat.
Although the scene was a disaster, the organization of it was phenomenal. "Vince Swinney, the county sheriff at that time, was a pro at disaster management," Dees says. "Disaster planning and management, these interagency things, this was the sheriff's reason for living. It really showed when his guys got out there. The sheriff's office never had a finer hour."
After the fire died down, Dees, a sergeant from Washoe County Sheriff's Office and one from Nevada Highway Patrol decided who was going to handle what. "Within about two minutes, we decided that WCSO [Washoe County Sheriff's Office] would handle the crash site itself, Reno PD would take security duties at the perimeter, and NHP would route traffic around the site," Dees says. "So much was settled so simply."
Among the chaos, an item identifying the reason for the trip lay between the RV being used as a command post and the wreckage itself. Hoses and cables encircled a football, but no one would touch it. "Someone on the plane had brought a football on board," Dees explains. "The football was ejected and spared from the fire. The football was supposed to be there. It wasn't anything anyone had to say. You just didn't go near the football. In any other circumstance, the football would have been tossed and kicked around as a distraction. In this case, the football was a kind of memorial. It had a kind of charm to it."
The night continued getting colder and the officers took turns jumping into their cars to get warm. "There was a short interlude between the fire dying down and the 'stars, bars and take-home cars' folks showing up," Dees says. "Six or seven officers stayed with me, and we were at the scene until we were relieved at about 1400 hours the following day–about 13 hours." While they waited, several people tended to their needs.
Luther Mack owned most of the McDonald's franchises in Reno. "Every few hours, a McDonald's truck would drive up with hot coffee, breakfast sandwiches, burgers, orange juice–something different each trip–and hand it out to whomever was hungry," Dees explains. "The Salvation Army also had a truck there, dispensing coffee and donuts. They were mostly known for feeding the homeless, and I asked the guy manning the truck why they had come out. 'We take care of whoever needs it.' They never asked for anything back, either." The kindness has remained with Dees for the twenty-three years since the crash.
After all was said and done, the National Transportation Safety Board determined, "the probable cause of this accident was the captain's failure to control and the copilot's failure to monitor the flight path and airspeed of the aircraft…Contributing to the accident was the failure of ground handlers to properly close an air start access door." 70 people were lost.
As for the call that started Dees' night, "The kidnapping victim had been locked in the trunk of his own car, driven to the SF Bay Area, and released," Dees says. "The suspect stole the car and abandoned it later. We never caught him. The officer I posted at the crime scene has since retired, so I assume someone relieved him."