Frank Mejia

Frank Mejia walks about the 1979 crash site of a C-119 Flying Boxcar, dubbed the “mystery plane.” The Francisco Grande Resort can be seen over his left shoulder.

CASA GRANDE — Frank Mejia parked his pickup along Peters Road, on the north side. Not quite a half-mile west of Burris Road, just outside Casa Grande.

Mejia once lived in the house across the street. He had 10 acres, some cows. He moved out in the ‘90s.

“See that tree there,” he said. It was a tall tree, maybe 30 to 40 feet. It was in the backyard. “I’m going to tell you a story about that.”

Mejia has lots of stories. He grew up on farms in Casa Grande. He joined the Air Force at 17. He served 1954-58, returned home and became a barber. He opened his own barber shop. He cut hair for more than 50 years, too many heads to count. Before the second Iraq War, he had a side gig as a Saddam Hussein impersonator.

He married Angelita in 1964. They have four children, all grown up. He’s 84, looks like 65.

So, sure. Lots of stories.

But a tree? “A sight like that, in all my life, I’ll never forget.”

The tree just begins the story. It ends with a plane crash.

It was July 8, 1979, early evening. Mejia was sitting out on the back patio, watching the sunset. Julian Bonilla sat nearby. Bonilla was a welder who lived on the property. A plane came into view, from the west.

“It was flying awfully low, on the other side of the gravel pit.”

The gravel pit was south, across a field. The plane banked north and flew toward Mejia’s house. Just over the tree, close enough to make the branches sway.

The house was — and still is — surrounded by farms. Crop dusters were a common sight, Mejia said. This was something else. A cargo plane. Later reports identified it as a C-119 Flying Boxcar. It had two propellers, one to a wing.

Mejia and Bonilla watched as the plane went north. It flew over farmland, then cleared State Route 84, about a mile away. It banked left again and headed west, toward the Francisco Grande Resort.

“I said, ‘He’s probably looking for a place to land.’”

Short of the resort, the plane hit the ground.

“There was a big ball of fire,” Mejia said. “So it bounced from that fire, and I’d seen the plane, on fire, going up a second time.”

It bounced again. “Then it bounced back down and then another explosion.”

“I says to Julian, ‘Let’s go.’”

Mejia took his truck. Five minutes later he pulled up to a wreckage in flames. He got out. Julian stayed in the truck.

“There were some bodies.”

Last week, Mejia took me to the crash site. It’s a dirt lot covered with some desert scrub. We walked around a bit. Nothing remains of the wreckage today. Mejia remembered a plane in pieces, still burning. And the barrels. They likely carried fuel, he said. Drug smugglers could tap them without stopping.

We walked a bit farther. He pointed to the ground. He recalled a man lying there, still smoldering.

“I’ll never forget his eyes … He was just looking up,” Mejia said. “He was alive, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

The man died shortly after. Another survived long enough to walk toward the resort, before collapsing.

First responders soon arrived. They lifted another survivor onto an ambulance. He was in shock and speaking in Spanish. The EMT asked Mejia if he spoke Spanish and could interpret.

Mejia went up to the man, badly burned. The man kept saying, “Quítate el cinturón!” “Take off my seatbelt!” Mejia said, translating.

The man also said, repeatedly, “Dios perdoname.” “God, forgive me.”

Mejia asked where he was from. Colombia, he said. He told Mejia he had a wife and two daughters. That’s all Mejia found out.

“He didn’t make it,” Mejia said.

Mejia went back home and told Angelita what he saw. The horror of it. Like nothing like he had seen before. And he had seen plenty. In the Air Force, he handled dispatch for the crash and rescue team at Castle Air Force Base, near Merced, California. He also went out on calls.

The base has since been shuttered. At the time, it was a staging ground for B-52 bombers and KC-97 refueling tankers. In 1955, Mejia and a team went to a crash involving a tanker. Nobody survived.

“It was all pieces,” he said. “We had to put them in bags.”

Body bags.

As bad as it was, he didn’t have to look into the eyes of a dying man. And know there was nothing he could do to help.

At the time, Mejia said little about the Francisco Grande crash. But reporters jumped on it. The next day’s paper ran a story with a photo of flames from the wreckage shooting “high into the night sky.” It was taken by Donovan Kramer Jr., then and now managing editor of the Casa Grande Dispatch.

The story quoted 14-year-old Michael Johnson of Desert Carmel, a nearby subdivision. He was in his front yard when he saw the plane come down. An engine was on fire, he said. The plane bounced twice, then exploded. He ran to get his parents.

Later stories identified the people on board, four in all. David Dwake, 29, and Sammy Middleton, 32, died at the scene. Both were from Florida.

Howard Scruggs, 37, and Luis Torrenegra were taken to Maricopa County Hospital — now Valleywise Health Medical Center. Then and now, known for its burn unit. Neither man made it. Scruggs was from Florida. Torrenegra, the man Mejia spoke to, was from Colombia.

Nobody knew where the plane was from. Or where it was going.

News reports noted the 55-gallon drums, the ones Mejia mentioned. There were 30 of them, filled with fuel. Onboard, they exploded when the plane hit.

Originally C-119s were military transport planes. Production started in 1947 and continued through the mid-’50s. With ample cargo space, they became popular with drug smugglers, an official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told the Dispatch. And this one appeared to be tricked up for drugs. It was painted black and apparently flew without lights.

But no drugs were found. No bundles of cash.

“They found some jars later with some coins in it,” Mejia said.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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(1) comment

kd7

I was there that night, rookie PCSO deputy. A long night. A long traffic jam coming out of Casa grande on 84 just to look at the crash. People are strange.

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