Luther Haynes was cutting grass in Zion Baptist Church’s front yard in Shelby, North Carolina when at 6:10 p.m. he heard what he described as a loud “swoosh” out of the sky. He looked up and briefly saw a large object hurtling with a hissing sound toward earth, disappearing behind the church and landing with a massive thud about forty yards away in an unused section of the cemetery.
Wondering what it was, Haynes hurried around the church. He first encountered a 4-inch deep depression in the soft earth about the size of a suitcase, then about 25 feet away he was horrified to see that the object he saw fall was a human being.
He resembled more a ruined mannequin than a man. Every bone in his dead, shattered body appeared broken. His clothes were shredded and both shoes were missing.
Haynes immediately ran inside the church to call police.
Thirty-five minutes earlier, at 5:40 p.m. on June 10, 1956, newlyweds Oren A. Pruitt, age 38, and his wife of 22 hours, the former Blandine Tidd Smith, had boarded a Piedmont DC-3 Tidewater Pacemaker airplane in Charlotte to go meet Blandine’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Smith, in Asheville. After marrying in the small town of York, South Carolina they originally were going to take a bus to Asheville, but they missed it so they booked a 5:00 flight at the Charlotte airport. Missing that also, they managed to snag the two last seats on the 5:40 flight.
Oren first met Blandine while working as a chef at a hotel where she was a hostess. They dated for almost seven years before deciding to marry. During that time Oren had left the hotel and was working in Charlotte as a surveyor’s assistant.
At 5:43, with a full load of 24 passengers, the flight roared off the Charlotte runway and became airborne, eventually settling at about 6,000 feet due to the unpressurized cabin, which was typical at the time. Twenty minutes into the flight Oren and Blandine chatted amiably about the wedding and of his apprehensions about meeting her parents. After noticing and telling his bride that she looked “a little peaked,” she asked him to go get her a cup of water from the restroom. Despite the seat belt light still on because of anticipated turbulence over the Smoky Mountains, Oren got up and walked to the restroom, near the rear of the plane.
What exactly happened at this point is a mystery. Oren seemed a little unsteady as he walked down the plane’s aisle, as he had sometime before boarding (and maybe unknown to his wife) had a few drinks to steady his nerves and calm his apprehensions about meeting her parents. This was confirmed later by the steward, Bert Barnes, who smelled alcohol on Oren’s breath when he offered them both a stick of gum prior to takeoff.
Reaching the restroom, Oren found the door locked. Seeing another door right beside it, he may have figured it was a second restroom. He grabbed the latch and noticing it seemed stuck, turned it and gave it a mighty push.
Back in her seat, Blandine noticed a sudden noisy rush of air, as the plane rocked slightly back and forth. In the cockpit, Captain Baxter Slaughter and First Officer H.A. Schultze immediately noticed something was wrong, as they had felt the plane lurch and the speed slow by 20 knots. Thinking at first there was engine trouble, Slaughter reached for the engine mixture control when he noticed something terrifying that he thought had to be a false signal — it seemed the plane’s main cabin door was open.
Schultze bolted from the cockpit and he and Barnes, the steward, ran to the rear of the plane and found an unbelievable sight — a panicked woman in the restroom was stuck in the half-open doorway, pinned there by the shrieking vortex of a gaping cabin door. A nearby passenger, Joseph Forest, yelled to Schultze and Barnes that he thought a passenger had opened the cabin door, and it looked as if the man managed to cling to the door frame for a couple seconds before he lost his grip.
Unable to close the door due to the tremendous outside wind pressures, Schultze and Barnes manhandled the woman in the ferocious turbulence from the bathroom back to her seat before ordering all the passengers to stay belted in their seats.
As the two men hurried to the front of the plane Blandine stopped them and asked “Where is my husband?” It then dawned on them that her bridegroom was the one the other passenger had seen ejected from the plane. Barnes sat down in the seat next to her. “He didn’t say anything to me,” she later said, “but I knew he was gone.”
She slumped in her seat, devastated and in shock.
In the Asheville-Hendersonville Airport Fred Smith anxiously awaited the arrival of his daughter and her new husband. He was especially concerned that this marriage would work, as in 1946 Blandine had been engaged to an Asheville man named Bob Aiken who was killed in a car accident shortly before their wedding.
As the plane landed and taxied to the terminal Fred and several others were surprised to see the cabin door already open. Then, he saw his daughter get off by herself, steadied by the steward. After meeting and listening to her frantic explanation what happened, he took Blandine to their house, where she was treated for shock by their family doctor.
“I thought Oren was in the men’s room still,” she told a reporter the next day of that moment on the plane. “Nobody got up. I was afraid to look back there.”
“I just know he’s gone.”
Within hours the Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB), the State Bureau of Investigation, the North Carolina Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies descended on the airport and the Tidewater Pacemaker. An investigation headed by Bill McGee and Zeke Saunders showed the cabin door was in perfect mechanical order, but since no one actually saw Pruitt open it, it was unclear exactly how it happened.
“There is not a way in the world the door could have been forced open by pressure, and the door is not something you can just bump against and open,” McGee stated, adding that Pruitt must have worked hard to force it open.
A Cleveland County coroner’s jury also failed to find exactly how Pruitt fell from the plane. Joseph Forest, who was seated nearest the cabin door, testified that he did not actually see how the door was opened, only that when he heard and felt the rush of wind he looked up and for a split-second saw Pruitt clinging to the door frame before he tumbled away. He said he briefly considered jumping up to help, but was afraid he would be sucked out also.
Richard Murray, an Aeronautical Administration representative, testified that there were no CAA regulations violated, and that the door was functioning perfectly when the plane landed. He did speculate that alcohol may have been a factor in Pruitt’s actions, judging by Steward Barnes’ testimony that he smelled it on Oren’s breath early in the flight. Blandine, however, flatly denied that her husband had been drinking.
Back in the church yard just after the incident, police and a coroner had arrived, and Haynes explained to them “I heard a loud swoosh, then it sounded like an explosion.” They identified Oren’s body by his driver’s license still in his wallet, then carried him to the Shelby Funeral Home. Cause of death was listed as “complete destruction of body in fall from airplane from 6500 feet distant.” His funeral was held June 16, and he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Charlotte. Other than his new wife of less than one day, he had no surviving family.
In the days following the accident Haynes reported that over 200 curiosity seekers visited the cemetery to see the location of the “freak death fall.” Gossip among the visitors was rampant, and soon some news accounts reported the depth of the indentation where Oren landed growing from four inches to four feet.
Piedmont stressed that Pruitt was the first fatality in the company’s nine years and 385 million miles of operation. In May 1959, a $300,000 wrongful death suit between Blandine and the airline was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
As a result of the accident, Piedmont installed a safety device on the doors to keep them from being opened accidentally.
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