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Cover of the 1962 World's Fair map. Courtesy of Douglas Coulter.

Cover of the 1962 World's Fair map. Courtesy of Douglas Coulter.


This NOT Just In: World's Fair Plane Crash

Feliks Banel

On April 21, 1962 the Seattle World's Fair kicked off with great fanfare. But the opening ceremonies were marred by a deadly tragedy as a military jet crashed into a Seattle neighborhood.


In the 50 years since Seattle invited the world to celebrate Century 21 at the 1962 World's Fair, the event has become part of the city's mythology. Amenities built for the fair, including Key Arena, the Monorail and the Science Center, remain part of the civic infrastructure, and the Space Needle has come to symbolize Seattle the world over.

Bell Telephone Song: "On a Needle up high you can look through the eye and you're seeing it all, yes you're seeing it all. As the present unfolds what the future beholds you're elated, fascinated."

The fair was a big deal in Seattle, and the opening ceremonies on April 21 were some of the biggest the city has ever seen. The festivities that day were memorable, but they were also marred by a now nearly forgotten tragedy.

A crowd of 12,000 packed into Memorial Stadium for the noontime event under partly cloudy skies. Senator Warren Magnuson, the governor and the mayor gave speeches. Entertainer Danny Kaye read the fair's credo, which spoke of lighting the way to the year 2000.

President Kennedy, speaking from Florida, was piped in over loudspeakers.

JFK: "May we open not only a great World's Fair, may we open an era of peace and understanding among all mankind. Let the fair begin."

Waterskiers wowed the crowd in a specially built tank that encircled the stadium infield. An aerialist rode a motorcycle on a high wire running from the grandstand to the Space Needle. Overhead, a formation of Delta Dagger military jets buzzed the stadium at low altitude.

Announcer: "Navy and Air Force planes join in the salute to the exposition that has exhibits from 27 nations on display."

It was an exciting demonstration of Cold War military might, not unlike the Blue Angels that would later become part of Seafair.

The squadron headed back to their base at Paine Field in Everett. Suddenly, just north of the Fairgrounds, one jet flamed out. It lost power and fell rapidly from the sky. The pilot tried twice to restart the engine, but still the jet plummeted earthward. He pointed the fighter toward Lake Washington in hopes that it would plunge harmlessly into the water. Then he ejected and parachuted to safety.

In this audio from a 1962 TV news program, KOMO reporter Art McDonald explains what happened next.

KOMO News: "But the Delta wing jet suddenly gained altitude, then smashed through a house and dragged it across the street into another. Both were leveled. A Montlake Terrace couple died. A vacationing family of five lost their home, but not their lives."

Killed in the crash were Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Smith. Five neighboring houses were also damaged by the intense fire.

Back at the fairgrounds, the celebration went on as planned. As the ceremonies concluded, thousands of helium balloons rose into the now quiet sky to signal the official opening of the fair.

The fair went on to have a successful run, and plans were set for another spectacle at Memorial Stadium to celebrate its conclusion in October. But this time, for the closing ceremonies, President Kennedy would be here to make his remarks in person.

JFK: "Good evening my fellow citizens."

But Kennedy had cancelled his trip to Seattle. He appeared, instead, on national TV to announce the blockade of Cuba.

JFK: "Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island."

The World's Fair had created an atmosphere of pleasant internationalism in Seattle for six months in 1962. The military jet crash at the start and the Cuban Missile Crisis at the end were ironic reminders that beyond the fairground walls and the celebrations of hope for a new century, the future was still held in the grip of a Cold War.

I'm Feliks Banel for This NOT Just In.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Bell Telephone Century 21 Song: "See the art shows, walk the thoroughfare, on the boulevards leading everywhere, ride a rickshaw, dine on caviar, you can telephone a star. It's a wonderful age on a beautiful stage demonstrated for you, been created for you. It's just a part of, the thrilling start of, Century 21!"