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Explosion in the night
Story by Robert Matzen
A fiery 1946 plane crash on Mount Potosi rattled the Las Vegas Valley — and sent shockwaves through Hollywood and beyond
Editor’s note: On the evening of January 16, 1942, TWA Flight 3 slammed into Mount Potosi just west of Las Vegas, bursting into a ball of flame. On the plane was film star Carole Lombard, returning to Los Angeles from Indiana, where she was performing to promote war bonds. But she wasn’t just returning home to L.A. — her flight home was also a desperate attempt to keep her husband, Clark Gable, from the arms of another woman. In this excerpt from Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, author Robert Matzen reconstructs the night of the crash from multiple points of view based on several eyewitness accounts.
The Blue Diamond Mine sat atop a high bluff guarding the entrance to Red Rock Canyon, southwest of the growing city of Las Vegas. Almost 9,000 people now inhabited Las Vegas, and things were looking up further with the opening of a sprawling motor hotel and lodge called El Rancho Vegas, located on Highway 91 just south of town.
The strip mining operation at the Blue Diamond produced gypsum for wallboard and had been in operation for 60 years. The mine’s workers and their families lived in a collection of company structures generously called the “town” of Blue Diamond, which sat low in the valley below the strip mine in Red Rock Canyon.
Darkness had recently cloaked the diggings on the bluff. It had been a cold day and promised to be a colder night, a Friday night, with the sky clear and full of stars. Fifty-year-old watchman Danlo Yanich was on his rounds, which didn’t amount to much in a location this remote. There was a war on now, and facilities across the nation had been ordered on high alert due to the dangers of sabotage, but that figured to be on the coasts, where shipping proved to be vulnerable in the ports of Los Angeles and New York. Dan didn’t have any reason to figure that saboteurs would come stumbling up to the Blue Diamond Mine. If anything, they might be tempted to try for the Hoover Dam 15 miles to the southeast. It was with some security that Dan Yanich guarded the Blue Diamond mining operation, where intruders usually took the shape of wild burros or rattlesnakes. Yanich had emigrated from Yugoslavia and, with no formal education, he counted himself lucky to find a job at the mine in 1916, half his life ago. Food poisoning had laid him low earlier in the year, and for the past five months he had worked guard duty. Now he was getting better, slowly but surely.
Going on 7:20, Dan saw a plane flying over a bit to the south and west, not too far off and not too high, considering that the mine sat way up on the bluff. Dan couldn’t hear the engines of the plane for the incessant drone of the machinery behind his ears, but he remarked to himself that this big baby was flying lower than he was used to, even considering the bombers and fighters that zipped past on their way to the classified area off to the southwest where Army maneuvers took place almost daily.
Far below the bluff and away from the mining machinery, Calvin Harper, the head loader in the loading department, was able to hear the plane fly over. Harper was down by the cook house at the gypsum plant below the mine and just moments from punching out for the night when he heard the mystery plane, lower and louder than other planes. He gave the airship a glance over his shoulder and saw a streak of flaming exhaust from the right engine — the plane was so low in the sky that the fuselage blocked his view of the left engine — but the peculiar thing to Calvin was the sound of the engines. One growled steadily while the other seemed to come and go. He would hear it, then it would sputter to silence, then he would hear it again. Harper had ridden planes a lot back when he lived in Los Angeles, and he was a motor man who loved to fool around with his car engine and keep it humming. He knew motors, and he didn’t like the sound of that sputtering engine.
By now the plane had flown over; Harper’s shift was about done, and his attention returned to getting out of there and warming up on this cold night. He vaguely heard the piston engines of the plane growling away into the darkness, working hard, their frenetic drone bouncing off the nearby cliffs and echoing through Red Rock Canyon behind him.
Dan Yanich looked over at the silhouette of the plane and its wingtip running lights, one red, one green, and thought it a majestic sight, a big twin-engine number that he figured to be a bomber or a DC-3. TWA and Western Airlines planes flew out of McCarran Field up at the northern edge of Las Vegas, but so did all manner of Army planes; whichever this was, it was flying south-southwest, maybe toward Los Angeles. Because of the war and the new blackout rules, far fewer lights burned in the area at night, including signal beacons for air traffic. Dan could see the signal beacon due east over at Arden, and it seemed as if the plane flew right over it. But the beacons high up on 8,000-foot Potosi Mountain to the south no longer flashed their comforting beams at night. He could see Potosi’s black mountaintops jutting up high in the distance, standing blacker than the velvety sky above. Very high, treacherous mountains they were, where even the prospectors didn’t go because of the cliffs and the loose footing and the boulders. Snow blanketed those mountains all winter and gave them a picture-postcard appearance, but make no mistake: One wrong step up on Potosi Mountain, or any of those mountains, and even the surest-footed man would be found only when buzzards pointed the way in the spring.
The Army fliers didn’t seem to mind the blackout and its darkening of the beacon lights, and the pilots of those big silver passenger planes didn’t seem to give a care about new rules either. Didn’t they fly by radio beam anyway? This pilot wasn’t any different. That big plane climbed like it meant business, cutting purposefully through a skyful of stars that sparkled faintly behind high, light cloud cover.
[Hear more: Learn about the secret history of the Air Force on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
Inside the Blue Diamond Mine business office, purchasing agent Ora Salyer sat cleaning up some figures in his books and heard the plane roar overhead. Planes simply didn’t fly so near the diggings at night, and so it was notable when he heard this one now. It was close enough and demanding enough that he gave it some notice, especially when he could feel vibration from the engines in his desktop. He half wondered what this plane’s story was and in what direction it was heading. It had to be an Army plane, it just had to be. When the machines weren’t running, the only sound in an hour’s time might be the howl of a coyote. This was, after all, unforgiving country, part desert and part jutting mountains. Cactus grew in the parched earth, and Joshua trees, and yucca plants, and not much else. Hearty folks lived here — you had to be hearty to get by in Southern Nevada. Then the sound of the plane receded, and Salyer’s mind went back to his figures.
Yanich had moved on through the diggings down toward one of the conveyor belts, which were still in operation this late in the evening. Salyer kept at his bookkeeping, in the stillness of a perfectly ordinary, cold, and deepening January night.
Ten or so miles due south, off an old mining road in the foothills of Potosi Mountain, Charlie and Ruth Hawley had finished pitching their tent and now warmed themselves by a roaring campfire in preparation for spending the night in a desolate spot with high hills on either side. They were in the process of cutting firewood for the remainder of the winter and had half-loaded their pickup truck when darkness settled in.
They sat in the quiet, the only sound the crackling fire, and stared into the flames. Ruth was about to retire to the tent when she heard a plane flying low overhead. The sound was loud enough that both looked skyward into the starry night but could not see an airplane.
“They’re coming after us, Charlie,” said Ruth, deadpan, as she got to her feet.
“Well, they have to be wonderin’ ’bout a fire in the middle of nowhere, I suppose,” said Charlie. “We have to be the only people for miles.”
“Not flying very high up, is it?” she said, and left her husband by the fire. He kept looking at the sky.
“For the mountains, no, it sure ain’t,” Charlie murmured, but his wife was already gone. “Not high up at all.” And then the plane came into view directly over their fire with a high-pitched mountain lion’s growl that shook the ground, a rumble he could feel in his bones. The engines seemed to be working hard, very hard. And no, the plane wasn’t as high up as a man would expect.
Charlie Hawley had a perfect view of it, looking straight up into its belly, and the entire time he watched, the plane seemed to be turning left, left, left. Not much of a turn, but a little — enough to be noticeable. He could see the twin glow of lights streaking forward from the plane, and he could feel those angry engines.
Inside the tent, Ruth was too damn cold to go back outside and watch some airplane. She buried herself under her bedclothes and contented herself to wait out those loud motors and a vibration deep enough to rattle her teeth.
Charlie watched the plane fly on over the hill, and then the sound of the engines grew distant and the echo spread out and no longer sounded quite so angry.
Ruth began to relax a little as the bedclothes warmed her up. She kept listening to a now-more-agreeable set of airplane engines out in the distance. It was almost peaceful. She had never been on an airplane; she didn’t figure she ever would be on one. But somebody was up there heading someplace, and that was the sound of their progress, that plane now some distance downrange. It was kind of comforting, the thought of people around, even if they sat way up there flying around in the sky.
Then the sound stopped. Not as if it had faded away. It just stopped. Angry engines one second, and nothing the next. As if a light switch had been clicked, the engine noise was replaced by the dead silence of Potosi Mountain at night.
Strange, thought Charlie. The whole thing with that airplane: strange. Now all was still, so very still, when just a few moments ago there had been such commotion.
Ten miles north of the Hawleys, Dan Yanich had a different view. Yanich had seen a flash out the corner of his eye, and the ground trembled under his feet; the desk before Ora Salyer vibrated a bit more. Seconds later Salyer heard the faintest of rumbles in the distance. Like far-off thunder, except that it was a clear night and there weren’t any storms.
Salyer was used to the reports of guns from hunters as he sat in the office, or from the Army boys practicing on the range to the south. It was always difficult trying to figure the origin of a gunshot or an explosion in the surrounding mountains, but whatever he had just heard tonight, and wherever, it seemed to be very distant but also sizeable, as if maybe the Axis had dropped a bomb or dynamited the Hoover Dam.
Salyer scrambled up from his desk and slipped outside, joining Yanich there as the watchman frowned toward the south and said, his accent thick, “I think dat airplane maybe drop a flare.”
Salyer stared off into the blackness to the south, and knew at once that this was no flare. He gaped at a fireball with flames licking upward into a high and spectacular orange beacon on Potosi Mountain. The view of both Ora and Dan was unobstructed, and that fire burned like something out of a nightmare, like something biblical, the flames reaching up what must have been hundreds of feet into the black sky, glowing yellow and orange, their light illuminating the smoke above, which gave the radiating effect of a halo. All around the fireball at the center, the snow on the mountain glistened like gemstones, and Yanich saw the effect as utterly beautiful. They could make out trees burning as well, despite the fact that a storm had just dumped a couple feet of snow on the peaks of Potosi, also known as Double Up Peak, also known as Double or Nothing Peak, and Table Mountain. It had lots of names because people respected it; it was a deadly place.
They wondered what in the world …
But deep down they knew, and their stomachs turned over: the growling plane that had flown past. Something had gone wrong with that plane. It didn’t seem plausible because of the ferocity of the explosion and that fire up there, which seemed to burn much brighter and hotter than any kind an airplane could cause. It made no sense, yet something had set the jagged peak of Potosi aflame. And that big plane had just flown over. Only one explanation made any sense: It was an Army plane loaded with munitions.
Salyer ran inside and called the police station over in Las Vegas.
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