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Victims, families recall '78 helicopter crash in Derry

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 7:34 p.m.

Mary Lou Allison hated crowds. The last place she would have been was at a church fair on Labor Day 1978. But she desperately wanted to see her husband and daughter fly in a helicopter over the St. Joseph Catholic Church Fair in Derry.

Tammy Barchesky wasn't planning to go to the fair that day. But a last-minute call from a friend changed her mind.

Lois Weidenhoff and her family made the trek from Kittanning Township to Derry simply because of a poster she had seen about the fair. A cousin distinctly remembers Weidenhoff talking about a helicopter that was supposed to drop pingpong balls for a raffle.

The helicopter was supposed to be the highlight of the annual festival. It was a new addition, designed to bring in a crowd and help raise money for the parish school.

Suddenly, the helicopter plunged into the curious crowd.

Eight people died and 18 others were injured in a tragedy so gruesome it's difficult for people to talk about -- if they can speak about it at all -- 30 years later.

'Trying to piece it together'

"I still have nightmares with it, trying to piece it together," said Leo Allison, 77, of Derry.

Allison and his daughter, Mary Beth, then 15, were in the helicopter. He was a salesman who worked part time as St. Joseph's custodian. When the Rev. John Wilt hired Nelson's Helicopters of West Mifflin for the contest, Allison said he would ride along to drop the balls.

"Mary Beth had never flown. I figured I'd take her with us," he said.

They were to drive to the airport in Unity that day to meet the pilot. Allison asked his wife to see them off at the airport.

"She said, 'No, I want to see you in the plane,'" Allison recalled. It was a bold move for Mary Lou Allison to go the fair. She was a homebody -- a mother of three who preferred sitting on her porch to being anywhere else.

So she headed to the fair in the church parking lot with the rest of the family, including son Rick, 25, and daughter Amy, 19.

Allison said everything seemed fine until the second pass over the festival. The helicopter's engine stopped. Pilot Pamela Nelson tried to ease the craft away from the people.

"She guided it to the corner, but the fence caught her and it brought her down, and that's what killed the people -- the blades came down," Allison said.

All he could think about was his daughter. When the helicopter crashed, she fell out one end and he climbed out another.

"I found her sitting off to the side crying, and then my son was saying, 'Hurry up, dad, it's Mom,' " Allison said.

The rest of his family had been directly underneath the helicopter, but somehow only Mary Lou was struck in the head.

Rick performed CPR on his mother and brought her back to life briefly. Paramedics did the same in the ambulance, but she died in the hospital.

As the Allisons rushed to the hospital, Wilt, who said the accident is still too painful to talk about, was offering last rites to the dead and dying.

Found in the chaos

In the church basement-turned morgue, James Weidenhoff of Kittanning Township had to identify his wife, Lois, among the disfigured bodies.

Her cousin, Kathy Marcinek, 59, of Kittanning Township said Lois, her husband, son and a young cousin drove to Derry because of an advertisement they saw at the Indiana County Fair.

It was the kind of spontaneous thing Lois was known for. "She was funny. She had a great sense of humor," Marcinek said. "She was one of those people who was a responsible human being, but she still could play and have fun."

The Weidenhoffs already had gone to the three-day festival once. The details are sketchy as to why they returned on Labor Day, even though Weidenhoff had tomatoes to can.

"It may have even been for the helicopter," Marcinek said. "I know she talked about it." As the helicopter flew over, the family was separated. Lois was standing underneath it when the craft came down onto the bake sale booth.

She probably was not far from Tammy Barchesky of Derry.

Tammy was just starting the ninth grade, just starting to notice boys.

The Barchesky family had no plans that Labor Day. Neighbor Parece Smith, 14, called and asked Tammy to go to the fair.

Hours later, Tammy's mother, Jane, and her mother headed to the fair. They ran into Tammy. She asked for money even though she already had some.

"She walked away and it all happened," said Jane Barchesky, 66, of Latrobe.

When the helicopter fell, in all the chaos, Jane Barchesky somehow found her daughter.

Tammy's right arm was almost severed by a helicopter blade.

But she was conscious and speaking.

"She wanted to know how Parece was," Jane Barchesky said. "She was right over there. It wasn't a good sight, either.

"I just looked over and said, 'I don't know,'" she said.

Parece was dead.

But Tammy was alive and Jane and James Barchesky had hope.

"We had no idea her injuries were fatal," Jane Barchesky said.

The blades that cut her arm also sliced deep into her hip. Surgeons in Latrobe reattached the arm. Then surgeons in Pittsburgh amputated it.

Her injuries proved too much. She died Sept. 19. Still, her parents are thankful that she lived beyond the accident.

"When it's instant, it's awful hard to grasp," Jane Barchesky said.

"We had something to hold onto," her husband added.

The scars remain

Janice Petrunyak DeFloria still bears a scar from the incident. It runs down her left arm, marking the place where surgeons repaired a broken bone. Her sister, Mary Petrunyak, bears a different scar -- the memory of what her 7-year-old eyes saw that day.

DeFloria was 12. She had walked Mary and brother Mike, 9, the few blocks from their house to the fair.

She doesn't remember the accident. She recalls waking up in intensive care with a broken arm, broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Mary Petrunyak, 37, of Northern Cambria remembers it all. She recalls standing by the penny-pitch booth when the wind suddenly picked up. She remembers holding on to the booth with all her strength, hearing the screams and seeing the blood.

"I remember there was a booth of all plush white animals you could buy strip tickets for, and they were no longer white after that," she said.

"'I can't find Jan. I can't find Jan,'" she said she recalled saying to her brother. "I said, 'I think she's in the crash.' "

They ran home and passed their parents, who were running toward the crash. The kids went home while their parents searched for Janice.

A neighbor called them over.

"He was covering me with a sheet and he said, 'She's OK. Just come over and hold her hand,'" DeFloria recalled.

After the accident, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration swooped into Derry.

A coroner's inquest determined that Pamela Nelson was not criminally negligent for the accident. But the NTSB said pilot error was at the heart of it. Nelson was simply flying too low, officials said. However, a worn part on the throttle may have made the helicopter difficult to control, investigations revealed.

Numerous lawsuits were filed against helicopter owners Nelson and her husband, Lawrence Nelson, the manufacturers of the helicopter and its engine, and those in charge of maintaining the craft. The Nelsons declined to comment for this story.

After 30,000 pages of legal documents were prepared, the suits were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

No memorial

Allison said neighbors stepped in to help him in the aftermath. His daughter Amy became more like a mother to Mary Beth.

He quit traveling as a salesman and worked full time at the church. Mary Allison, who lived for her children, never got to meet her three grandsons and a great-grandson.

Weidenhoff's husband and son moved back to Elk County to live with family.

Her son, James, now 42, has two children of his own.

"I think a lot now about her being around for the kids," he said. "I wish she was around to see them."

Barchesky's and Smith's parents donated money to their church, Derry Presbyterian, to build a carillon in their daughters' memories.

Jane Barchesky said hearing the bells toll every day gave her comfort.

Through it all, they kept going.

St. Joseph held memorial services only for the first couple of years.

No memorial was ever built at the church.

"Thank goodness," Leo Allison said. "It's hard enough to know that's where it happened."

The Rev. Stephen West, pastor at St. Joseph, said he will offer prayers for those touched by the disaster during Masses next weekend.

Parishioners don't want anything more.

"They don't like to discuss it," he said. "I've been here 11 years almost and whenever I bring it up, they quickly change the subject."

But despite faith and hope, it's only human nature to ask questions -- to wonder why God would take eight people at a church festival in such a gruesome way.

"I've asked, but you don't get questions like that answered," Allison said. "He'll tell me when I see Him. There's a reason for everything, I guess."

The victims

Eight people died when a helicopter flying over the St. Joseph Catholic Church Fair in Derry crashed into a crowd on Labor Day 1978:

• Mary Lou Allison, 46, of Derry, a homemaker and mother of three. She was there to watch her husband and daughter drop the ping-pong balls from the helicopter at their parish's festival.

• Tammy Barchesky, 13, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junior High School and a saxophone player in the school's marching band. She survived 15 days before succumbing to her injuries.

• Edward "Tim" Deglau, 32, of Derry, a husband and father of two young children who worked as a ninth-grade math teacher at Derry Area Junior High. He was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.

• Gertrude Gray, 54, and her daughter, Darlene, 13, of Unity. Their husband and father, Joseph Gray, had died seven months earlier. The Grays were members of St. Vincent Basilica. Darlene was a freshman at Greater Latrobe High School.

• Irene Maloy, 53, of Derry, a parish member. She was volunteering in a bake sale booth when the helicopter crashed on top of it. A wife and mother, she worked as a store clerk and bookkeeper and was active in church and community organizations.

• Parece Smith, 14, of Derry, a ninth-grade student at Derry Area Junior High who played bells in the school marching band. She was a member of Derry Presbyterian Church.

• Lois Joy Weidenhoff, 51, of Kittanning Township, a wife and mother of one son. She attended the festival after seeing a poster for it at the Indiana County Fair.

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