Saturday, February 26, 2022

34 Are Burned to Death When Giant Roma, U. S. Army Dirigible, Plunges 1,500 Feet -- February 26, 2022

New York Tribune, 22-February-1922

When it was completed in Italy in 1921, Roma was the largest semi-rigid airship in the world. She was purchased by the United States Army, which had her dismantled and shipped to Langley Field, Virginia. Roma made her first flight on 15-December-1921. 100 years ago this month, on 21-February-1922, Roma crashed and killed 32 people.

34 Are Burned to Death When Giant Roma,
U. S. Army Dirigible, Plunges 1,500 Feet

3 of 11 Survivors Unhurt;
Many Are Killed in Leap
From Flaming Craft
Capt. Mabry, Pilot,
Dies at His Post
Crash With High Voltage Wire
at Hampton Roads Causes
Explosion; Rudder Fails

Special Dispatch to The Tribune

NORFOLK. Va., Feb. 21. -- The second attempt of the United States to develop an airship fleet through purchases abroad ended disastrously at the Hampton Roads army base to-day, when the army semi-rigid dirigible Roma, after developing rudder trouble 1,500 feet on the air, crashed 200 feet in flames to the ground, exploded and caused the death of thirty-four of the forty-five passengers and members of the crew on board. The accident was the worst in the history of aircraft in the United States.

Three of the eleven survivors, by miracle or chance, were unhurt. A tarnished gold leaf clinging to a charred uniform served to identify one of the dead as Major John G. Thornell, the Air Service officer, who supervised this 412-foot flying ship since the day she was acquired from the Italian government. The others of those unfortunate navigators of the air are mercifully posted at Langley Field as "missing" to soften the fact that they are but charred embers among the fused and blackened metal that was the articulated framework of this greatest of all semi-rigid airships.

After the airship which had a capacity of 1,200,000 feet of hydrogen gas was set on fire by the explosion the heat was so intense that firemen from three departments worked five hours before they could take out the charred bodies of the victims buried under the great framework.

Army Officers Begin Investigation

The story of the last cruise of the Roma has been pieced together to-night by army investigators taking the accounts of ground observers, the broken sentences of terribly burned survivors, and the more lucid versions of the three men who were unhurt.

Mute testimony was added to the words of the living by fleshless hands that clutched the pilot wheel in a grip of death. They told something of the heroism of those flying men, of a soldierly devotion to duty that is ordinarily associated only with battlefields. They had been the hands of Captain Dale Mabry, chief pilot and commander of the Roma. He died at his post and doing so created a tradition for captains of the air that parallels the ancient law of the sea.

The Roma became unmanageable at the height of 1,500 feet through some defect that developed in her elevating mechanism. The huge structure had been taken out on what was to have been a speed flight to test six Liberty motors of 400-horsepower each that had replaced the more delicate and less satisfactory Italian engines with which she was originally driven.

Back and forth over the flatlands about Hampton Roads the dirigible was guided by her expert crew for nearly an hour. Then, as the ship straightened out for a flight inland to Richmond, something went wrong. The first intimation the crew and passengers had was a shout from Lieutenant Burt, in charge of the elevator planes.

Major J. G. Reardon, one of the survivors, told about that. He said:

"I heard Lieutenant Burt cry, 'She won't respond!'

"Captain Mabry, standing by his wheel, shouted to the lieutenant to elevate the ship. Burt put his whole weight on the elevation lever, but the Roma, her nose going lower and lower, continued to rush toward the ground. Then I heard Captain Mabry say, 'Good God, boys!' There was no fire until we struck a high voltage electric wire just above the ground. Then everything burst into flames."

Dives to Earth Under Own Power

lt was just a little before 2 o'ciock in the afternoon when those on the ground at the army base at Hampton Roads heard the roaring of the six powerful Liberty motors of the Roma. Looking up, they were just in time to see the blunt nose of the silvery mass point sharply downward.

For a few moments the ship drove toward the earth under her own power. She was not falling. Then the motors were shut off and the speed of the descent slackened. The horrified watchers on the ground saw tiny, ant-like figures at the portholes in the triangular keel frantically heaving sand ballast through the openings, but they worked in vain.

As the vessel came near the earth, her pilots still striving frantically to control her, the airship struck two high tension wires carrying 2,300 volts. The next instant the nose of the big vessel hit the ground and rolled over. There followed a terrific explosion and then the whole airship was on fire.

When the Roma burst into flames many of those on board escaped with their lives. Their bodies fell on a pile of pig iron, and in less time than takes to tell it the burning airship fell almost on the same spot. 11 men who had made the desperate leap for life, if they were not already dead when their bodies struck the pile of iron, were burned to death under the airship.

There was just one man who leaped and landed on soft ground. He escaped almost unhurt, excepting for a few burns on his face and hands. He is Lieutenant Byron T. Burt. He jumped from the Roma when she was about thirty feet in the air and landed in the mud.

Ten Escape After Hitting Earth

Ten other men were saved from death by being able to leave the ship quickly after she struck the earth. Captain Walter J. Reed, who stood by the ship to the last, came out of the burning mass of steel and wood and rags with just a few scars on his ear and hand. He says he does not know why he is alive. Of all the line officers on the Roma only two escaped death -- Captain Reed and Lieutenant Burt. Both were listed as pilots on the Roma.

In the hands of two dead men dragged from the wreck were fire extinguishers. This bears out the theory that the ship must have been on fire when she was 200 feet in the air, and the men had grabbed extinguishers to help extinguish the blaze, but Captain Reed and Lieutenant Burt say they do not believe the ship caught fire until after she struck the high voltage wire just thirty feet above earth.

His First Trip Aloft Ends in Disaster

Roy Hurley, one of the eleven survivors, said he had never been up in an airship before to-day. He said he did not know anything had happened until just a few minutes before the Roma struck the earth. "We were sailing along all right, I thought," he said, "when all of a sudden I heard men scream and fire broke out all around us. Then there was a jolt. I was knocked over on my back. Men fell all over me and about me. They appeared like they had suddenly gone crazy. I believe I must have lost my head, too, for I don't know how I got out of the thing."

"If we were on fire up in the air, I did not know anything about it. We had not been up in the air so very long when it all happened. It was a real adventure for me, and I was enjoying it. I had nothing to do, and that is why I am alive, I guess."

The Roma appeared to be on fire before she struck the high-voltage wire, according to H. M. Tilley, who stood on the ground and watched the airship come down. He says he certainly saw smoke coming from the bag of the big flying machine. He declared the Roma appeared to "shrink up" all of a sudden. Her nose "shrunk" and she shot to earth. Tilley says he snapped a picture of the Roma about the time she struck the wire. She was all ablaze then.

The explosion, which came after the Roma struck the wire, broke windows in residences some distance from where the big aircraft fell. The explosion is also believed to have been partly responsible for the horribly mutilated condition of some of the bodies dragged from the wreck of the big flying craft.

The Roma fell almost in front of the army supply base fire headquarters, and within a minute after she rolled to earth, firemen had two streams of water pouring on her. She burned like a pile of light wood, and there was not a particle of her woodwork or bag left when the last ember was extinguished. Only the mass of metal framework remains.

Goes to Husband by Plane

Captain Reed, who was saved from the wreck with but slight burns, is a son-in-law of H C. Blackinton, one of the principal officials of the Furness-Withy Steamship Line. His wife was at Langley Field when Captain Reed flew away in the Roma. She was waiting for him to come back when she got news of the burning of the Roma. Then she insisted that she be taken to her husband in an airplane. Several army officers flew over from Langley Field to where the Roma was wrecked. Mrs. Reed went with them. She found her husband in the public health hospital with just a few minor burns on his hands and face. "I'm ready to go home," he told her, "if the doctors say so." He was required to wait for further examination by army doctors.

The collapse of the huge dirigible was witnessed by dozens of employees of the army base. Within a few minutes after the craft struck the ground the rescue work was under way. But those pinned underneath the burning were beyond help, and before they could be extricated their bodies had been charred beyond recognition.

Leap With Parachute

Practically all the crew and passengers were in the passenger cabin amidship when the explosion occurred, and before there was any time for coherent action the framework of the machine ' had caved in on top of them.

Lieutenant W. E. Riley, of New York city, a member of the official crew, jumped from a window of the cabin. His parachute failed to work properly, and he struck the street pavement on his head. His neck was broken, and he died before reaching the hospital. Another member of the crew leaped to safety, escaping with minor injuries. It was 2:10 o'clock this afternoon when the Roma struck the pile of pig iron in a mass of flames. Half an hour later she was a total wreck. She burned so quickly, soldiers from the army base who rushed to the scene, were unable to get to the craft. The fire was so hot it drove firemen twenty feet away from where they first stood to pour water on the flames. Spectators say the flames reached 100 feet in the air. Others say they saw particles of burning clothes and scraps from tne Roma's bag hurled 200 feet in the air.

Even caps worn by the crew of the Roma caught fire and went hurtling through the air after the big bag of the machine blew up.

It took only thirty minutes to destroy the Roma, but it required five hours to remove the dead bodies from the wreck of the big ship.

The Roma fell near a thickly populated spot of Norfolk County. There were scores of homes within a few blocks of where the ship fell and women and children rushed to the scene, eager to help. The homes were thrown open for the care of wounded, but there were only six men alive who needed attention. They were hurried away to the public health hospital, just a short distance from where the Roma fell,

Women who came to the scene bent on rendering assistance were made ill by the sight of headless and armless bodies. Many of them screamed and were taken away by relatives; several fainted, but the army doctors were too busy caring for the dead to render any help, and they were turned over to friends.

Graham Dalton, employed in a warehouse near the scene of the wreck, was an eyewitness of the disaster. In describing it he said:

"We were standing just outside a warehouse when we saw the Roma coming from over Oceanview way. She appeared to be in trouble.

"The ship looked as if she was about to turn over. She was up several hundred feet then, and it looked as if they suddenly shut off the engines. The machine started drifting slowly toward the ground. lt struck against the electric light wires and there was an explosion.

All Happened in a Second

It all happened in a second. I remember seeing one man leap. His parachute didn't work and he hit the pavement and lay still. When the explosion occured the whole thing seemed to buckle up and in a second everything was afire.

"One man jumped and when he hit the ground his clothing was all afire. Some men working in the yard rushed out and tore all the clothing off him, but he was burned almost to death.

"I saw another fellow crawl out from under the wreckage. His clothes were afire. He crawled on his hands and as far as a puddle of water. He fell over into the water and turned over and over, trying to put out the fire. When we reached him he was covered with mud. One of the boys started to rub the mud from his eyes with a handkerchief and the skin peeled off with the mud."

Roma Cost U. S. $200,000
Carried Passengers in Italy

The fatal trial flight of the semi-rigid airship Roma was one of a series of tests by which it was hoped to establish finally whether this kind of lighter-than-air craft was superior to the rigid type, of which the Zeppelins were the best examples.

Italy designated the great sky-roving monster for a bomb-carrier. Had she been finished before the end of hostilities with, Austria she would have joined a fleet of four smaller semi-rigid ships which were housed in hangars in the Po valley, about thirty kilometers from Ferrara, making nocturnal sallies across the frontier to drop tons of explosive in enemy territory. But the armistice was signed while she was only partially completed.

The United States had an air service observer with the Italian forces in the Po valley. This observer, reporting on the work of the semi-rigid airships said: "Every evening, regardless of weather conditions or fog, these dirigibles started out for a trip into enemy territory carrying much greater loads of bomhs than were carried by squadrons of airplane raiders, and returned successfully with the morning.

Dirigibles Maintained Schedules

"In every instance the dirigibles, without a serious hitch in the schedule, started on and returned from their mission in 100 per cent of force. In comparison with this record, in practically no raid participated in by six or more airplanes did all the planes return to their base the same day. Usually, one or more was delayed for days or weeks, due to forced landings, at fields near the front lines."

Reports like these stirred the enthusiasm of the American army air service.

The Italian government ordered the Roma completed despite the ending of the war, and for a time the big airship was engaged in passenger service that was almost as uneventful as the daily trips of a ferry boat. The Roma was kept in a hangar at Ciampino.

Then negotiations were begun between Italy and the United States for the sale of this the largest semi-rigid airship in the world, and the deal was closed when the American government offered approximately $200,000. Army experts at Washington estimated at the time that it would cost $1,250,000 to duplicate the Roma.

Early in 1921 Major J. G. Thornell started for Italy with a detail of air service men to bring the Roma to the United States. With him went Captain Dale Mabry, Lieutenant (now Captain) Walter J. Reed; Sergeant J. M. Biedenbach, Sergeant V. C. Hoffman, Staff Sergeant M. J. Beale, Master Sergeant H. A. Chapman and Master Sergeant R. C. McNally. All of these, excepting Beale and Chapman, were aboard yesterday.

At first it was proposed to fly the ship from Rome to Norfolk. When this plan was vetoed, the ship was dismantled, packed and placed aboard the United States army transport Mars for shipment to the United States. Before this, however, the expert American crew had been drilled by the Italian builders until they knew every kink in the articulated skeleton of the craft. Celestino Usuelli, the wealthy Italian businessman who constructed it together with his assistants in the undertaking, Colonel Crocco and the engineers, De Nobile and Prassone. were on hand while the ship made trial flights, with the Americans helping the Italian crew.

On March 15 of last year, with the American flag fluttering from her stern, for the first time, the airship ascended over Rom. She was at last a part of the military equipment of the United States. Aboard were Robert Underwood Johnson, the American Ambassador at Rome, Brigadier General Evan M. Johnson, the American military attaché; several members of the embassy personnel, Major John G. Thornell, her new commander, his aids and about fifty Italian officers.

The transport Mars, with the dismantled, deflated airship resembling a couple of circus tents "on the spool," in her hold sailed for Norfolk from Genoa on May 28.

She was put together there once more the same silvery giant that had flown over Rome, and arrangements were made to place her in commission on December 21. On that day the Roma was flown to Washington. For five hours and a half the army airship plunged about high above the earth, bucking head winds in what probably one of the most thrilling ether voyages in the brief history of aviation.

Secretary Weeks, Secretary Denbv and Rolando Ricci, the Italian Ambassador, with others. waited for three hours in the raw, cold northwest wind blew over Bolling Field. Miss Wainwright, daughter of the Assistant Secretary of War, was there with a bottle of liquid air with which to perform the christening ceremony. It had been planned that these and guests of distinction were to be taken for a flight over Baltimore.

The christening ceremonies were hastened. The boat ride over Baltimore was abandoned. Major General Patrick, chief of the army air service ordered the Roma back to Langley Field and the safety of her hangar as soon as she could be refueled. Then with the wind on her tail with its cellular rudder, the Roma went home, making the return trip in a fraction of the time required for the journey to Washington.

The characteristics of the Roma were:

Capacity, l,200,000 cubic feet.
Gross weight, 37 tons.
Fixed weight, 18 tons.
Disposable lift, 19 tons (crew, fuel ballast).
Length, 412 feet 6 inches.
Beam, 82 feet 6 inches.
Height, 90 feet 9 inches.

The envelope had twelve gas compartments and six air ballonets, A characteristic of this airship was that each of the ballonet divisions had its own air manifold and two controllable exhaust valves.

No comments: