Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Day The Music Died: 50 years on

In October 1986 I was drivng across the USA and I found myself in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Because of the mythology around 'American Pie' I went to look for the 'Buddy Holly' crash site. Twenty years ago, before the world wide web, Clear Lake's claim to fame wasn't encouraged by the Chamber of Commerce and they denied knowing where the crash site was but they did send me over to the Surf Ballroom who sent me to the Mason City Globe-Gazette who put me in touch with the photographer
Elwin Musser who had taken this photo.

Now thousands of people visit Clear Lake in the midst of winter to remember Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper and a good number of them come from Britain. The British contingent have founded a tradition of having breakfast at the Chit Chat Cafe as part of the annual rituals. I'm glad the Chamber of Commerce has since come to their senses and welcomes visitors at a slow time for Iowa tourism.

Learning that I was a photographer from Britain, Elwin and his wife Elsie very kindly invited me to dinner. We talked late into the night about his photography, 3D cameras and life in newspapers and when I left Elwin gave me one of his last sets of prints. He still didn't tell me where the crash site was exactly but, with a twinkle in his eye, he hinted that by lining up the features in the photos with the map I could find the site to pay my respects. Now there is memorial and signs everywhere to the site but the silos and trees I found it by are the same

Elwin took the photo above (one of 16 plates) on a Speed Graphic at around 11 AM when the coroner arrived on the scene and he only spent a few minutes there. Only eight images have been published but the rest of them show little of public interest.
At the scene are: Jim Collison - reporter with Elwin's paper (far left), A Boyd Arnold, - Mason City Fire Chief, Eugene Anderson - FAA Investigator, Fred Buchetti - FAA Investigator, an unknown State Trooper, Ralph Smiley - Coroner (seen in other photos wearing a stetson and fur parka but out of frame here).

The body lying on the ground you might as well know is Ritchie Valens. The Big Bopper's foot is on the right edge of frame (he was thrown forward) and the pilot Roger Peterson is inside the wreckage. Buddy Holly lies just outside the bottom left of frame which I have cropped from the original.

The first point of impact is about 600 yards back where the plane bounced then the nose ploughed into the ground, flipping over as the cabin rolled the tail around itself like a ball of string and throwing the passengers out and coming to rest on the fence. Contrary to the millions of words recounting this event it was actually planted with beets at the time; Iowa and cornfields being a lazy writer's cliche.

I live myself very near the site of two plane crashes. On the 13th February 1974 a RAF English Electric Lightning's  engine caught fire and the pilot Fl Lt Terry Butcher ejected and instead of continuing to the North Sea as expected, the aircraft XR715 from RAF Wattisham smashed into the ground mere yards from my house at Watermill Farm, Wenhaston, the home of the late North Norfolk MP, John Hill

In August 1944 Joseph P. Kennedy Jr's craft exploded over Blythburgh so changing the course of history (had he lived there would have been no Dallas). There many other wartime crash sites and bits of plane turn up all the time when ploughing.

Elwin said he never thought there would be much interest in these photos. A plane crash in New York the same day pushed this story aside in the headlines except in the victim's home states. On 22 Aug 1954 a Braniff Douglas DC-3 crashed at Mason City in a thunderstorm and Musser's photos of that event went on the front pages nationwide. Musser had a book published of his work in 1994 and hundreds of his images are accessible through the Mason City Public Library.

Elwin recalls that fateful day in a video on the
Globe Gazette's website and hopefully from there you'll be able to look at the slideshow of his work too.

This photo is the copyright of the Mason City Globe Gazette. You can order your own uncropped copy from or link to it from there.

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