Forty years ago on Monday, Sonora Elementary School counselor Kerri Francis McCluskey went to a birthday party that was supposed to be an innocent childhood experience — fun but forgettable.
Kathy Francis, Kerri McCluskey and Roger Francis (top) look through a photo album. Maggie Beck/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
Instead, a plane from an air show crashed into the Sacramento ice cream parlour where the party was taking place, killing McCluskey’s identical twin sister, Kristi, and changing her own life forever.
The accident, which took place when the twins were 3, has been etched into Sacramento’s memory as the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour crash.
McCluskey and her parents, retired teachers Kathy and Roger Francis, will mark its anniversary by visiting a memorial in Sacramento this weekend. Their journey to the present day has been much longer, testing the family’s strength.
Still, they choose to focus on the positive outcomes of the tragedy, including McCluskey’s own work as a counselor and the establishment of a treatment center for burn victims.
“The accident made us all more empathetic people,” McCluskey said. “It gave us a deeper understanding of people and relationships. I think we value life a little extra because of it.”
The disaster took place about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, 1972, near the end of the Golden West Sport Aviation Air Show, when a restored Korean War-era F-86 Sabre jet barrelling down the runway of Sacramento’s Executive Airport failed to take off.
It plowed into a berm, across Freeport Boulevard and into the “Howard Hughes Room” of Farrell’s eatery.
For those who don’t remember it, Farrell’s was a national chain of 1890s-themed family ice cream parlors, popular for birthday parties and similar events.
Several families were celebrating at the South Sacramento location on the day of the accident.
Twenty-three people died — two in a car on Freeport, one on the street and the others inside. Twelve of the fatalities were children.
Air show bystanders witnessed a colossal fireball and smoke billowing from the restaurant. It was front-page news around the world and is still considered one of the worst air show accidents in history.
Kathy and Roger Francis describe their family’s life, up until the disaster, as peaceful, livened up by the twin sisters’ antics. McCluskey and her sister were born Jan. 14, 1969, in Oklahoma, where Roger was stationed in the Army.
Kathy had not had a sonogram during her pregnancy and wasn’t aware she was carrying two babies. Kristi was born first. The family jokes that Kerri was the unplanned, surprise child who “pushed” her sister out of the womb.
She could talk Kristi into anything, according to Kathy and Roger.
“They were two little characters,” Kathy said. “But I have to say that Kerri was the imp and Kristi was kind of the little thoughtful thinker.”
The family later moved to Stockton, where both Kathy and Roger were teachers. Kathy recalled a time when the twins snuck out of their house in diapers and waddled down the street toward a friend’s house. On another occasion, Kerri found a box of food coloring and offered a bottle to Kristi, who took a sip and temporarily dyed her teeth green.
The Francises have dozens of pictures of the twins, many of them posing with costumed Santa Clauses. One picture shows Kristi — who had a slightly rounder face — sucking on a peppermint while Kerri is having a typical toddler meltdown.
At the time of the accident, the twins were just shy of 4. McCluskey said her memories of the day are vivid, likely a factor of the trauma she went through.
The Francises were packing boxes and preparing for a move to Sonora, where Roger had a teaching job. The twins’ babysitter, 12-year-old Christi Kiehn, invited them to a birthday party at Farrell’s with her family. Kathy and Roger decided to let them go.
Nine people piled into a station wagon bound from Stockton to Sacramento, which McCluskey remembers as a long ride.
The group was initially seated in a large room near the entrance at Farrell’s, but the noise prompted Christi’s mom, Joan Bacci, to move them to an adjacent section of the restaurant. The move may have saved many of their lives.
Farrell’s’ signature dish, called “The Zoo,” was a colossal bowl of ice cream delivered to customers with fanfare. It arrived at Kerri and Kristi’s table after they squabbled about who would get to sit at the end of the booth. Kristi won.
In the final moments before the crash, McCluskey remembers 29-year-old Joan Bacci removing plastic animals from The Zoo and licking ice cream from them.
As part of the fanfare associated with the dessert, an employee came out and banged a bass drum, McCluskey recalled.
“And when he struck the drum, everything just went dark,” McCluskey said. “We had no idea what had happened. I just remember being in a dark spot, underneath stuff. And there was that diesel smell, burning.”
Kiehn, known by the twins as “Big Christi,” found McCluskey and passed her through a window to someone outside. McCluskey didn’t know that her leg was broken. She was taken into an ambulance, where she remembers seeing an angel.
“This angel came down to me and said Kristi’s in heaven living with God, and you’re going to see her again, but don’t move your leg,” she said.
Christi and the Francises arrived at Mercy Children’s Hospital, where Kerri told them Kristi was in heaven.
“It was the innocent faith of a child, as opposed to a grownup who questions,” Kathy said.
A nun at the hospital later confirmed Kristi had perished in the crash. So did Joan Bacci and all four members of another family. One of the other fatalities was a woman who, in a panic, crossed the street to see if her grandchildren were hurt. She was struck by a car.
The plane’s pilot, Richard Bingham, 36, survived and was treated for a broken arm and leg at Sacramento Medical Center.
An FAA investigation showed he had little experience flying the F-86.
McCluskey, who has extensively researched the accident, said she considered the crash “human error” rather than God’s will.
“Bad things happen to good people,” she said. “I don’t hate him. I’ve never really put anger in that direction.”
More difficult to deal with was the pure shock of a moment that turned an everyday occurrence like an ice cream party into a parents’ worst nightmare — a freak accident that no one could have dreamed up.
“You think you’ve lived a charmed life and everything’s going along well, and then your life takes a huge turn in the road,” Kathy Francis said. “They were with a family that we loved and trusted.”
Kristi’s loss is something the family members still feel on a daily basis, with Kathy observing that it doesn’t seem like 40 years have passed.
To this day, she can’t eat at the kind of restaurant where families are usually present — even McDonalds.
One difficult moment came when McCluskey’s oldest daughter, confused about how to imagine her aunt, asked whether Kristi was grown up or still little. Kathy wasn’t sure how to answer.
The entire month of September remains problematic for the family.
The weaker quality of the autumn light triggers their grief, Kathy said. When McCluskey was younger, the season would put her into a “funk.”
“September is my ugly month,” Kathy said. “But as time goes by, you remember the happy times. … If you think really hard, you can remember what that little child felt like, the softness of their skin, the silkiness of their hair.”
“You start dwelling on that,” she said. “But it takes a lot of time to pass before you can not think of the ugly part of it and the void of how much you miss that little one.”
“You get through it, but you never get over it,” Roger Francis said.
He and Kathy went on to have two more children, a boy and a girl. They honored Kristi’s memory in small ways, putting four stockings out at Christmas instead of three and four pumpkins on the step at Halloween.
McCluskey said she absorbed parts of her twin’s personality, like her thoughtfulness and preference for the color green.
She married and had her first child, naming her after her sister. Kristin is now a 15-year-old sophomore at Sonora High School. With her younger siblings, Connor and Annika, she lives next door to the Francises in Sonora.
In 2002, after learning that the city of Sacramento planned to put a public safety center at the end of the same runway where Farrell’s was located, McCluskey led a fundraising campaign to have a memorial placed on the site.
Planning the memorial was cathartic for McCluskey and others who had lost loved ones in the accident. Many, herself included, were revisiting the location of Farrell’s for the first time. The memorial features drawings of angels made by Kristin when she was four.
McCluskey will deliver another speech at the site on Sunday, in front of a crowd that might reach 1,400 or more, and has spent the past several days drafting it.
She believes good came out of the accident’s aftermath, easing her pain.
Immediately after the crash, Sacramento lacked the facilities to treat the burn victims, according to former firefighter Jim Doucette.
Within a year, the nonprofit Firefighters Burn Institute was set up to raise money for a burn treatment center. The Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center at UC Davis Medical Center was a result of their efforts, and a Shriners Hospital burn center is nearby.
“Now we have two of the best burn units in the whole world,” said Doucette, executive director of the Firefighters Burn Institute. “What we’ve done, and what those two hospitals have done, is save lives.”
For that reason, Doucette doesn’t consider the Farrell’s tragedy a meaningless one, or the victims’ losses pointless.
“In one way, they sacrificed their lives for other people to live,” he said.
McCluskey agreed that the victims have changed the world through the burn center.
“I think it’s the most significant thing that’s come out of it on a large scale,” she said. “It’s like a living memorial that helps people on a number of different levels.”
Her own career as a school counselor is a direct result of the tragedy. She was motivated by her experiences in the hospital to help children, eventually settling on counseling as the best way to do it.
She said the loss of Kristi is now a major guiding force in her own day-to-day work at Sonora Elementary, allowing her to empathize with students going through their own losses.
“It makes me more credible to them,” McCluskey said. “I show them a picture of (Kristi) on my phone. I think it gives them hope.”
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Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties