Thursday, September 2, 2010

Frank B. Alexander crashes a plane into the Church of the Shrine of the Virgin of San Juan (10-24-70)


At GenDisasters, they posted an original newspaper article of the famous plane crash in San Juan. I remember hearing about this famous story as a kid from my mom, who remembers the day and has talked about the sight of the flames emanating from San Juan. This is a story I've been curious about for ages now, so thanks to GenDisasters for posting this information online and making this famous Valley story available to the masses.

MAN CRASHES PLANE INTO VALLEY SHRINE.

230 ESCAPE INJURE; LOSS IS $1.5 MILLION.


San Juan (AP) -- A former schoolteacher crashed a small plane into a Roman Catholic church Friday, destroying it and an adjoining cafeteria. Acquaintances said the pilot deliberately smashed into the structure after issuing a strange radio warning.
About 30 priests at Mass in the church and 200 schoolchildren at their noon lunch fled safely from the Church of the Shrine of the Virgin of San Juan and the cafeteria.
Officers identified the pilot as FRANK B. ALEXANDER, about 50, considered an authority in teaching migrant children. He resigned his school job with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school system last spring. ALEXANDER also was a flying instructor.
ALEXANDER'S body was recovered from the destroyed structures. It still was strapped in the pilot's seat when found.
Charles Wardroup in the control tower at Miller International Airport at nearby McAllen said an all-point radio call was received from a pilot identified later as ALEXANDER. The call was on an emergency frequency.
The flier ordered fire departments to evacuate all Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches between Hidalgo and Edinburg and Weslaco and McAllen, all in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Asked the reason for his strange order, the pilot replied: "because of a serious plot."
Moments later the four-place plane smashed into the church and fell at the point where the cafeteria and church proper joined, setting both afire.
The church and the cafeteria were destroyed by the fire, with only steel beams remaining.
The Rev. E. A. Ballard, chancellor of the Bownsville diocese of which the church complex is a part, estimated the loss at $1.5 million. He said the church and cafeteria destruction was total.
The church is part of a complex which also contains St. John's Catholic School and a retreat house.
The school is across a street at the rear of the church but the children eat in the cafeteria which forms a wing of the church. The retreat house is also across a street and a parking lot.
The Shrine of the Virgin of San Juan is famous to Roman Catholics in Northern Mexico and in Texas. The Virgin of San Juan is venerated in a centuries-old Mexican belief.
The white church, of stone and brick, was about the height of a two-story building. The steeple towered four or five stories high. It could contain about 800 worshippers.
"We first heard an explosion and we all rushed out," said Rev. Ronald Anderson, vice chancellor of the diocese.
A spokesman for the Upper Valley Aviation Co. in McAllen said Alexander rented the Piper Cherokee 180, a single-engine, four-place plane.
The aviation firm's spokesman said ALEXANDER, about 50, was well known to employes of the company. He was an instructor-pilot and often rented the company's planes.
The spokesman for the aviation company said the crash was no accident -- that it definitely was a deliberate crash. The spokesman said he also heard the radio orders from ALEXANDER.
On the strength of the mysterious radio evacuation directive, orders went out to clear all churches of persons in them, said Capt. Joe Garza of the McAllen Fire Department.
A spokesman for the McAllen police department said, however, there was no time to evacuate anyone. "As we were picking up the phones and dialing the plane crashed," said spokesman, "so the evacuation was not ordered in McAllen."
The aviation company said ALEXANDER rented theplane about 11 a.m. and said he planned to fly in the local area.
Employes of the airplane firm said they noticed nothing unusual about ALEXANDER'S manner.
Sister Margaret, principal of St. Johns' Catholic School, 50 yards from the church, said she saw the plane strike the church.
"I saw the plane coming," Sister Margaret said.
"It was making all sorts of noise and shaking ...
Suddenly it curned and hit the top of the church. I saw the fire burst out and I thought, 'Oh, the children.' I ran to the cafeteria to get them out." Mrs. Romelia de la Rosa, a teacher's aide who was in the cafeteria with about 200 children, said:
"We only heard a noise. A father came in and said the church was on fire and we got the children out of there."
The children left their lunch half-finished. Classes were immediately dismissed for the day and they were sent home.
Mario Reyna, 11, a sixth grader who was in school cafeteria, said:
"We heard the plane, then the explosion. I looked over to the church and saw a lot of smoke."
A huge crowd and traffic jammed the area as fireman from several Valley towns fought the blaze unsuccessfully.
One wing and part of the fuselage lodged between the church itself and the cafeteria.
Sheriff Claudio Castaneda said Department of Public Safety officers searched the still burning wreckage of the plane but did not locate the pilot at once.
Supt. Dean Skiles of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo schools said ALEXANDER, a resident of San Juan, resigned as a teacher April 28 effective at the end of the last school year.
Justice of the Peace Dario Garcia of McAllen said an autopsy had been requested by the Federal Aviation Agency.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times Texas 1970-10-24

7 comments:

  1. Very Interesting indeed, my father Cresencio Martinez was the Maintence person for the church, I remember very well going there and have pictures as a child. We actually lived closed by. I actually remember my father saying that he would carry the money out from the basement in a wheelbarrow to salvage as much as they could. When my father passed we actually had his service in the shrine part and some people there still rememebered him.

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  2. I was about 5 years old. I still remember the horror. I was so scared, I still have dreams

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  3. I was born in San Juan, resided en Alamo & bautisado where we attended church. alli mero.My folks knew Don Chencho, the groundskeeper. My primo Ramiro would eventually hold that position a couple decades later.

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  4. I went to school at Spartan School of Aeronautics, in Tulsa, OK. One of my classmates was David Alexander, white blond about my age then of 24; he spoke both English and Spanish fluently. Although I am of Hispanic heritage, we were friends running around and studying together, but I noticed that David had an inexplicable hatred toward Mexicans. One day, out of the blue, he confided in me a "secret" that had been bothering him for a long time. He told me what his father had done, crashing the plane against the church intentionally and killing all of those people. His demeanor was calm and as cool as a cucumber, at times he even seemed to relish the moment. I listened attentively but didn't dare to say a word. Shortly after that revelation, and as his vociferous hate against Mexicans increased more frequently, I stopped hanging around with him, and never saw him again.

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  5. Interesting, anonymous...what year did you meet David Alexander?

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  6. Yes it was an interesting tale Anonymous, but when you read the article, no one was killed at the church or the cafeteria, no one except the pilot.
    So one wonders if this David Alexander just didn't get his facts straight or just thought the fire had killed many people?

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  7. I grew up in San Jaun and remember well the destruction of the church. I was 27 years old at the time. The story behind the disaster was told to me by my mother, who knew the people involved. David Alexander had married a woman who had previously worked as a prostitute in Reynosa. My mother had taught us not to look down at these women, explaining that people in Mexico at that time were cushed by poverty to the extent that many could not afford to feed, clothe or get medical care for their families. David Alexander's wife was a devout Catholic and attended mass regularly at The Church of the Virgen. She also volunteered to keep the children in the nursery. Some of women in the church, disregarding the teachings of Jesus, complained that they did not want a former prostitute taking care of the children. Mrs. Alexander was then forbidden to work in the nursery. She was so humiliated and depressed by this rebuff that she committed suicide. It was in retalliation that the bereft David Alexander destroyed the church. Of course this is not a justification, but it was the reason he did it. I have never seen the story in print, even though it was well known to many people.

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