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Memories of Survival

August 02, 1999|ANNETTE KONDO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHATSWORTH — Ask about that day five decades ago, and they'll calmly tell you they easily could have been among the 35 who perished.

One survivor credits a guardian angel, a divine protector that followed him from rescue to hospital recovery. Another says it was a gift from her Lord.

The newspaper headlines and newsreels have long since faded from most memories. And the boulder-strewn Chatsworth mountainside is now silent and peaceful except for an occasional jack rabbit.

But for several of the 14 who survived the July 12, 1949, crash of a Standard Airlines plane--at the time, the Southland's deadliest aviation accident--each day is still precious, each year still a gift.

"When you come that close to not being here, or being told they are going to take your foot off, it changes everything in your life," said Caren Marsh Doll, who was known at the time as Caren Marsh, a stage and screen actress who was Judy Garland's stand-in on "The Wizard of Oz."

The Hollywood native was one of 49 passengers and crew members flying from New York's La Guardia Airport to the Lockheed Air Terminal, known today as Burbank Airport.

The Civil Aeronautics Board had ordered Standard Airlines of Long Beach to shut down its business by July 20, the result of regulation violations.

The plane was a C-46 or Commando--a popular military workhorse and the largest twin-engine transport plane used during World War II.

About 45 minutes before the crash, two passengers brawled. Over Riverside, about 7:35 a.m., Pilot Roy G. White radioed the Lockheed tower, asking police to meet the plane.

To keep the peace, stewardess Vicy Zelsdorf, 25, offered to change seats with one of the men. She was 4 1/2 months pregnant and heading home.

During the flight, Zelsdorf had chatted with Marsh, 30. Marsh sat about three rows from the back of the plane. She had been working in New York and was flying home to attend a cousin's wedding.

The petite, brown-eyed brunet, a talented dancer since childhood, was already a familiar face on stage and film. Fresh out of Hollywood High School--where Judy Garland was a classmate--Marsh won an MGM movie dance role.

In 1946, she was cast as Winifred McMasters in "Navajo Kid," a western starring Bob Steele and filmed in the Chatsworth hills.

A year later, she was voted Miss Sky Lady of 1947. The prize: free flying lessons. After she had soloed, Marsh printed up leaflets listing her credits, then took off in a two-seater to shower MGM, Paramount, RKO and other studios with the fliers.

The publicity stunt worked, and more roles followed, including "Wild Harvest" with Alan Ladd.

"She was cute," recalled George Trebat, then 22, and fresh out of New York University with a degree in banking and finance. Like Marsh, he was seated about three rows from the back of the plane.

Young, single and curious about the other coast, Trebat was headed west to look up relatives in San Gabriel and find a job.

Also in the rear of the plane, on the right side, was Pvt. Robert E. Steinweg, 21, who looked forward to 30 days of furlough at home in Petaluma, Calif. He had just finished a three-year stint in the Army and left Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.

Seated near a window exit, Larry Bettis, 29, and his wife, Mary, 36, were on their way home to Long Beach after visiting relatives in Missouri. A thick fog enshrouded the plane, he recalled.

That's all anyone remembered of the flight before the C-46 slammed into a peak in the Santa Susana Mountains north of Chatsworth.

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"I remember going through the seat right in front of me," Larry Bettis said.

With a gash across his head, he ended up beside a cabin door near the pilot's compartment. Flames licked the battered plane.

"I crawled out the wing," he said, "then fell, I don't remember how many feet, to the ground."

Mary Bettis was still in her seat when she regained consciousness, then quickly climbed through a window. She found her husband outside and used his shirt to make a bandage for his head.

Trebat remembers little that happened immediately after the crash--the third deadliest in the nation in 1949. Federal investigators later determined the plane had been flying too low and that pilot error caused the crash.

News stories recounted how Trebat and passenger Judy Frost helped pull four passengers through the plane's split belly.

"What I remember, I was sitting on a fire break about 50 feet from the plane and it was burning," Trebat said. "I was told, but I don't remember, that I helped pull people out of the plane."

The pregnant Zelsdorf can never forget the dead, including two young children.

She was seriously hurt; her lower back and ribs were broken and her pelvis was fractured in three places. "I was told not to have the child, because I was so severely injured," she said.

Steinweg was just plain lucky.

A July 13, 1949, Times story described how he staggered from the wreckage down a fire trail to a Mesa Drive home.

"I was walking down a road and some lady stopped me," he recalled. "And I said I better go to Petaluma."

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