Scituate Reservoir Plane Crash – 1982

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine.  

Ablaze Over The Scituate Reservoir

By Jim Ignasher

     The pilots opened the cockpit windows, but it did little to ventilate the toxic smoke filling the cabin and choking their lungs.  Meanwhile flames licked at their legs from under the control panel, burning away clothing and flesh while inflicting excruciating pain.  Yet both men remained at their posts, for to do otherwise would mean certain death for all aboard. 

     The date was February 21, 1982, and Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 had been on a routine flight from New York to Boston when disaster struck. The plane was a twin-engine De Havilland Otter, capable of carrying up to eighteen passengers and used by many of the smaller airlines of the day.

      After making a brief stop in Groton, Connecticut, Flight 458 continued on at 3:10 p.m. with ten passengers and a crew of two aboard.  The pilot was Captain Thomas Prinster, age 26, and the First Officer was Lyle Hogg, age 27. 

     The plane climbed to its designated cruising altitude of 4,000 feet, but before long frost began to form on the exterior of the windshield, so Captain Prinster activated the external de-icing system. Just after doing so he noticed a strong odor of the de-icer solution permeating the cockpit, followed by wisps of smoke that began to emanate from behind the control panel.  Realizing there was an onboard fire situation Prinster radioed T. F. Green Airport and declared an emergency, and was granted priority clearance to land.  However, the aircraft was still over western Rhode Island and it soon became apparent that they were now in a race for their lives. 

     As Prinster and Hogg set a course for Green Airport, the smoke grew thicker as the fire quickly gained headway feeding on wires and other materials behind the dashboard. Then flames appeared at their feet and began to attack.

     As smoke began to waft back into the passenger cabin, one man raced forward and attempted to smother the flames with his jacket, but was unsuccessful.  He then retreated back to the cabin and began using a tennis racket to attempt to break out a Plexiglass window hoping to release the smoke that was now throughout the entire aircraft. 

     Meanwhile the cockpit was now so full of smoke that the crew had to stick their heads out the windows as they flew the plane in order to breathe.  Imagine their plight; faces freezing in the 150 mph slipstream while flames burned at their legs. 

     The smoke was such that the pilots couldn’t see the instruments leaving them unable to read a compass heading, see the artificial horizon gauge, or other navigational equipment.  Below them, at 1,400 feet above the ground, was a thick layer of clouds about 400 feet thick that obscured all visual reference points which might aid them in their situation. 

     It was now obvious that they wouldn’t make it to Warwick where fire and rescue trucks stood at the ready. They would have to take their chances going down through the clouds and hope for a successful crash landing.  What lay below the clouds was unknown. They could suddenly find themselves over a populated village, a steep wooded hillside, or a radio tower, any of which could appear in an instant with no time to react.  Yet there was no choice, so they began to drop down through the scud. For a few seconds the misty whiteness was all about them as the engine noise seemed to dim.  Then suddenly the mist parted as they broke through at one-thousand feet and found themselves over Scituate, Rhode Island.  Scanning the barren winter landscape Prinster sighted the Scituate Reservoir ahead in the distance, frozen, and covered with snow.  There was no way to know if the ice could support the weight of the aircraft, but the only alternative was to come down in the woodlands, which had a higher probability of ending badly.  Choosing the best option, the pilots brought the plane down to tree-top level and approached from the northwest, passing over the Foster/Scituate town line, then Route 102 near the famous “Crazy Corners”, and setting down on the ice of the tributary that runs along Tunk Hill Road.

     When they hit the ice the impact tore away a portion of the landing gear sending the plane into an uncontrolled sideways skid during which the right wing broke loose and slid away. The aircraft continued to slide across the snow covered ice for another five-hundred feet before finally coming to rest.  And it was still burning!  Passengers and crew scrambled out as spreading flames quickly engulfed the fuselage.  A headcount revealed that one passenger, a 59-year-old New Hampshire woman was missing.  Her body was later recovered, still strapped in her seat.

     Despite serious injuries, Captain Prinster remained in charge of the situation as he and First Officer Hogg calmly led the survivors away. They reached the  safety of the shoreline as the first police and fire vehicles arrived on scene.  Unfortunately most of the fuselage was destroyed before firemen could douse the flames.  Investigators later determined that the fire was caused by a loose connection in the de-icing system which allowed the alcohol based liquid to spray behind the electrical circuits of the control panel.        

     The survivors were transported to Rhode Island Hospital for treatment.  Both Captain Prinster and First Officer Hogg were admitted with potential life-threatening injuries due to their severe burns, but both ultimately survived. 

     Their fortitude, determination, and quick-thinking under extreme pressure didn’t go unnoticed.   Captain Prinster was awarded the Lieutenant General Herald L. George Civilian Airmanship Award by the Order of Daedalians, and both men received the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, and the Rhode Island Lifesaving Medal.   

     Furthermore, few may realize that there’s also a memorial park built in honor of these men located at Scituate’s famous “Crazy Corners”, known as Prinster-Hogg Park.  Just in from the roadway, amidst some overgrowth, stands a large granite boulder with a brief story of the incident engraved on its face.  It is the only aviation memorial in Rhode Island dedicated to an incident involving a civilian aircraft. 

 

 

The Scituate National Bank Robbery Of 1868

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, January, 2018

The Scituate National Bank Robbery of 1868

By Jim Ignasher

    At about 1 a.m., on the morning of Wednesday, March 25, 1868, Albert Hubbard and his wife awoke to find four armed men standing around their bed.  How they got in is unknown, but in the mid 19th century people living in rural towns like Scituate generally didn’t have to lock their doors.  Perhaps at first the Hubbards wondered if they were dreaming.

     Then one of the intruders warned. “If either of you moves, or makes a sound, you’ll be dead!”  This man was the apparent leader, whom the others called “Captain”.

     The couple was quickly bound and gagged, as was their young son who was sleeping in another room.  The incident wasn’t random.  Hubbard had been targeted because he was the cashier of the Scituate National Bank, and the men intended to use him in their effort to rob it.   

     The intruders had already broken into the bank a little more than an hour earlier, but had failed in their attempts to get the vault open.  Kidnapping Mr. Hubbard and terrorizing his family was their alternate plan.   

     While two men stayed with their hostages, Hubbard was led by the other two to the bank to which he had the keys and the combination to the vault.  But the combination wasn’t enough. There was a secret way to open it, and Hubbard was one of only three people who knew that secret. 

     There were no regular police patrols in Scituate in 1868, so there was little worry of encountering a constable as they made their way a short distance through the darkened streets.   

     On the way one of the men asked Hubbard how much money was in the bank, to which Hubbard replied, “Not much.” 

     Then the other stated they believed the bank held $50,000, and wouldn’t have bothered Hubbard if they’d thought otherwise.

     After forcing Hubbard to open the vault, the two thugs removed its entire contents without taking the time to examine what they were looting.  They then brought Hubbard back to his house and secured he and his family to give themselves time to get away.  Not long after the men had left. Mr. Hubbard managed to free himself, and after making sure his family was safe, he ran to the home of the bank president and informed him of the robbery.  Together they immediately sought out someone to send a telegraph to Providence alerting authorities to be on the lookout for the thieves.  Of course it was possible that the men could have headed westward towards the rural towns of Connecticut, but Providence was the nearest large populated area at the time where someone on the run might obtain passage on a train or a steamship. 

     The robbers had escaped with $10,000 in bonds, $5,500 in bills of various banks, $1,000 in bills of the Scituate National Bank, and $3,000 in bills belonging to the former Citizens Union Bank.  (It should be explained here that in the 1800s many banks issued their own currency with their bank’s name on it.) 

     Other items taken in the robbery included savings and bank books being held by the bank for security, as well as wills, deeds, mortgages, and other valuable personal papers of bank customers. 

     The only money left behind was a satchel containing $1,000 in cash which it was believed was accidentally dropped by the robbers as they made their getaway from the bank.

     However, some of the money taken was virtually worthless to the robbers.  Those bills marked Citizens Union Bank for example.  The Citizen’s Union Bank was incorporated in 1833, and in 1864 changed its name to the Scituate National Bank when the bank became part of the national system.  The new bank had been accepting the old bills, but with word of the robbery spreading, anyone wishing to cash them would need to prove they were not some of the bills stolen in the robbery.

     Authorities didn’t have much to go on in the way of clues.  The men had covered their faces thus making identification difficult.  One was said to have spoken in a German accent.  A standard crowbar was found in the bank, but “dusting” for fingerprints, or collecting possible forensic evidence was unknown in 1868.   

     The bank was located in a two story wooden building with an apartment on the second floor.  Tenants residing upstairs told investigators that they hadn’t seen or heard anything unusual all night.

     A nearby tavern keeper stated he’d heard a wagon leave his stable around 3:00 a.m. but didn’t think anything of it.

     It was later ascertained that the men had gone to Providence and boarded a Boston bound train at 4:50 a.m.

     Investigators traced the team of horses used by the bandits to a stable on Dorrance Street.  The owner said the four had rented it around 9:00 p.m. the night before, and had returned it sometime after 4:00 a.m. 

     It was further learned that the same men had visited the Granite National Bank in Pascoag a week earlier, but decided to rob the one in Scituate instead. 

    Yet despite the menacing behavior of the robbers towards the Hubbard family, apparently the men felt some remorse for their actions.  Sixteen days after the robbery, it was reported in the Woonsocket Patriot that some of the items taken during the commission of the crime had been returned.  A package that arrived via express mail from Philadelphia contained a large number of important papers, wills, valuables, jewelry, etc. which belonged to private citizens who had entrusted their safety with the bank. 

     To this the Woonsocket Patriot reported in part; “This act of the robbers seems a little odd, but is one of the characteristics of the professional gentlemen who take your money, and then return the empty wallet.  Sending the returned documents from Philadelphia is probably “a blind”; and no one need look for the robbers, or their plunder, in that city.”

     The men responsible for robbing the Scituate National Bank were never apprehended.

 

 

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