"The Oroville U2 Plane Crash"

THE WAY IT USED TO BE - By Larry R. Matthews - Published June 13, 2012

It seems that several occurrences in my past made me aware of both sides of this story.

I had worked in advertising for the Oroville Mercury Register newspaper in 1974 when their building was on Bird Street . I got to know and like the business and the people.

In the late 1980's my son, Alan, was a newspaper carrier for the Mercury. By that time the newspaper had moved to Second Street , north of the Feather River . Alan carried papers for the newspaper for about a year and we lived a mile from the newspaper building.

In 1981 I began working for Yuba County and as part of my job duties I gave monthly briefings to new military retirees at Beale Air Force Base regarding their veteran's benefits. I had noticed that out in front of the base headquarters was a U-2 that had been placed upon a pedestal. It had been involved in an accident just north of Oroville back on January 31, 1980 .

I remember when that happened. I was driving home from work in Chico and was just north of Oroville when I came across a group of Air Force Security personnel, with automatic weapons, who had staked out an area along Highway 70. Obviously, they were taking no chances with the security of a spy plane. The U-2 had crash landed out in the volcanic rock area west of the freeway. The area is flat and the pilot was not seriously injured. My research indicates that the pilot had passed out and the plane was so aerodynamic that it had crash landed itself. Apparently just then the pilot woke up, panicked, and ejected from the ground. His only injury was a broken nose.

Little did I know, at the time, that a later U-2 crash would connect Beale Air Force Base, The Oroville Mercury Register and the people of Oroville in a tragedy.

At 2:17 PM on August 7, 1996 Jeri Vering had just finished paying her newspaper subscription to Oroville Mercury employee Dusty Smith. She went out the front door into the warm, bright sunshine. Just then she heard a loud "pop" and looked up. She saw something flaming and black, heading right down toward her...and it weighted 40,000 pounds.

Captain Randy Roby, the pilot of the U-2, had taken off from Beale Air Force Base at 2 PM on that Wednesday afternoon. His U-2 aircraft had recently undergone routine maintenance. The Captain was performing a functional check of the plane. He headed northwest from Beale and approached Oroville.

He was 15 minutes into his flight when something went terribly wrong. The Captain relayed to Beale that he had an in-flight emergency. Then suddenly there was an explosion.

People on the ground have described the noise as a "pop" but it must have been quite a large explosion. The Captain grabbed the ejection release. He felt the thrust amid the noise and smoke as he was launched into the air.

Dusty Smith saw Jeri Vering outside her office door. She seemed in a panic, not knowing which way to run. Then the plane hit.

An explosion and fire ripped through the building, knocking employees off chairs in a blinding flash. Employees facing the wall of flames and smoke inside the newspaper's office had no idea what had caused the devastation. Picking themselves up, the 17 employees headed for a back exit just as fast as possible.

Outside, the wreckage was scattered in a widening circle from where the plane was sitting, nose down, after impacting with an employee's car.

The employees could not believe what had happened. They saw the aircraft, a 12 foot high pile of rubble that protruded from the paved lot to just above the roofline of the building. That was all that was left of the 63 foot aircraft.

It had been a miracle that nobody in the building had died. The plane had just missed entering the Mercury Building and had missed three homes on Second Street . A deviation, a few feet either way, could have resulted in devastating losses. But there was a loss; the lady customer had died.

But what had people seen? A resident had thought he heard a sonic boom, but it was the explosion of the aircraft. He looked up to see the spiraling aircraft, one wing engulfed in flames, as it plummeted almost straight down.

Faint crackling noises could be heard as the aircraft dropped lower and lower. Then another smaller explosion was heard just prior to it hitting the ground. The ground suddenly shook and there was a loud roar accompanied with billowing black smoke.

An employee of Butte County Adult Services heard an explosion and saw a shadow going over the building. She first thought it was a bomb and then realized it was a plane when she saw a parachute coming down.

An employee of California Department of Forestry Cal Fire Headquarters saw the pilot land in a grass field right next to their office on Nelson Avenue . She said that it was obvious that the pilot, who had lost his helmet, had not survived. Another CDF employee covered the pilot's body with his parachute.

The California Highway Patrol office is only a couple of hundred yards from the newspaper building. The first officers on the scene found the fire and destruction but also saw civilians picking up parts of the plane. They apparently did not realize that there could be secondary explosions. Prior to the authorities being able to fully secure the accident scene, many persons came to the area to see the destruction.

Officials from Beale's 9th Support Group indicated that they found wreckage from the plane up to a quarter of a mile from the impact area.

A later investigation determined that the cause of the crash was due to a malfunctioning air conditioner that melted hydraulic lines and started a fire inside the plane. The pilot died when his ejection seat flew him through the debris of the disintegrating plane.

Captain Roby has been called a hero as many felt he had done his best to steer his malfunctioning plane away from more populated areas.

I visited the new Oroville Mercury Building in August of 2002. In the front of the building, in place of the old building and parking lot, was a little park with benches and a trickling fountain. There was no memorial plaque.

Since that time, the newspaper has moved from the old location on Second Street . It has relocated across the Feather River back into Oroville.

Last month I found that the only reminder that a U2 had crashed in Oroville is a weathered wooden sign that is located at the Cal Fire Headquarters, on Nelson Avenue . It states, "Some Gave All. In Memory of Capt. Randy D. Roby who gave his life trying to save the people of Oroville, Ca. - Aug 7, 1996 - U2 Crash."

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jeri Vering and Captain Randy Roby and to those who tried to save lives that day.

On November 22, 2013 a new plaque was placed on the corner of Nelson and Del Oro Avenues to commemorate the U2 crash.

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