Death From Above
The opening ceremonies began at the World's Fair shortly before noon, when President John F. Kennedy pressed a telegraph key from his vacation home in Florida. As the Space Needle Carillon's bells clanged out, a squadron of 10 Air Force F102s roared overhead. When the planes came around for a second flyby, few in the audience noticed that there were now only nine.
During its second pass, one of the planes, piloted by Captain Joseph Wildt (1929-1977), flamed out at 1,500 feet and after two attempts to restart the engine, the pilot knew he had to bail out. Wildt set the controls so that the plane would ditch into Lake Washington, but his ejection altered the plane’s course, sending it three miles farther than he intended, straight into a neighborhood just south of the Snohomish County line.
The first house the jet slammed into was owned by Alexander Rutka (1922-1986), who was on vacation with his wife and their four children. The plane, now on fire and carrying remains of the Rutka house, piled into another home across the street and exploded. Inside were Raymond Smith (1894-1962) and his wife, Lillian (1899-1962), who were killed instantly. Five nearby homes were also damaged.
The Lucky Ones
The tragedy could have been far more severe. The neighborhood children often played on that street, and enjoyed a clubhouse that was built in one of the now-destroyed trees. Frederick Haines, one of the parents, had taken a group of youngsters to go see the movie Pinocchio, and some of the other boys and girls were enjoying an Easter egg hunt at a nearby church.
But some children were still around. Next door to the Smith house, Mrs. Frederick Haines was watching the World's Fair ceremonies on television when the plane hit, sending debris into her house and lighting the curtains on fire. Running outside to grab a garden hose to douse the flames, she found 3-year-old Jerry Andrews lying on her lawn. The neighbor boy was unhurt, but too shocked to cry.
The Story Unfolds
News of the crash reached the fairgrounds just as fair officials and their guests were finishing their lunch in the Eye of the Needle restaurant, high atop the Space Needle. Information was spotty at first. News of the pilot's rescue by Lake Washington boaters brought relief, but when it was announced that two people had been killed at the crash site, an agonized wail came from the crowd.
In Mountlake Terrace, Air Force officials began an investigation almost immediately, setting up tight security as they gathered up pieces of plane wreckage. An engine was found smoldering in a tree behind the Smith house, and shards of metal were strewn all over the neighborhood. An Air Force security officer asked that no pictures be taken because the planes were classified, but that didn't stop the press and a few camera-toting onlookers from snapping a few shots.
Meanwhile, in British Columbia, Alexander and Katharina Rutka (1928-1993) were visiting family with their four children -- Karl (b. 1950), Karleen (b. 1952), Karen (b. 1959), and Kimberly (b. 1961). While eating lunch, the phone rang. Mr. Rutka answered the call, and heard the terrible news that his house was destroyed and that his neighbors across the street were dead. He dropped the receiver and collapsed to the floor.
Fifty years after the crash, Karl Rutka and Karleen Rutka Goodwin told MLTnews -- a community news site for Mountlake terrace -- that their parent were never fairly recompensed by the government over the loss of their home, and only received $2,000 to $3,000 settlement for everything. The loss of the dream home took a toll on their parents' health, and both mother and father died in their early 60s.