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Wilfull Misconduct

Wilfull Misconduct by William Norris
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On January 30, 1974, the pilot of a Pan American World Airlines Boeing 707 jet carrying 101 passengers and crew flew his plane into the jungle instead of the airport at Pago Pago, Samoa. Although everyone on board survived the impact, 97 people perished in the ensuing fire. Four survived to tell of it.

What caused the crash? What prevented the 97 passengers from escaping the intact fuselage with their lives? Why was the wreck bulldozed and buried before it could be examined? Why was the co-pilot's deathbed statement never recorded? Why did the survivors and the families of the dead have to wait more than ten years for compensation, despite the fact that Pan American was found guilty of "willful misconduct" after the longest and most expensive trial in aviation history?

That is the story William Norris tells. It is a triumph of investigative journalism by a man whose outrage grew as he followed the trail of evidence, dug beneath the cover-ups, and came to know personally most of the people involved.

The result is a gripping tale, full of fascinating characters, human tragedy, and courtroom drama to beggar Perry Mason.
SynergEbooks; May 2002
301 pages; ISBN 9780744302929
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Wilfull Misconduct
Author: William Norris

Room 64G in the cellars beneath the United States District Court for the Central District of California, is some way off the Los Angeles tourist route. Above it, in the filing section on the ground floor of the imposing building on North Spring St., a stern notice forbids public entry. Beyond this sign, a steep flight of stars leads down to a catacomb of roughcast concrete and dusty pipes. Here is a tomb without bones; a mortuary of long-forgotten files and long-abandoned catalogues of legal pain. It is a place where hopes and dreams and aspirations share the upright coffins of the filing cabinets with tragedy and pain. The paper detritus of the act of dying is all around.

Room 64G contains more than its fair share of death. Behind a dull green door, its lock stiff with disuse, are the exhibits that catalogue the end of ninety-seven lives: those of the men, women and children who took their last trip on Flight 806 of Pan American World Airways from Auckland to Pago Pago on January 30, 1974.

I had gone to the courthouse in search of something; I knew not what. I only knew that the crash at Pago Pago, so small and insignificant by later standards of disaster, had spawned the longest, most complex, and most expensive legal case in aviation history. I wanted to find out why. Perhaps here, where the exhibits were left at the conclusion of the first trial in July of 1978, I would find some clue.

I was dredging for inspiration, seeking to find some foothold from which to climb the mountain of research that would undoubtedly lie ahead. I was not to know that before the day was out I would hold in my hands an unexploded bomb; a document so explosive that lawyers and judges had spent years making sure that it would never reach the public. It was called the Hudson report. I had heard of this document, at least by repute. In December 1975, in a progress report to his clients who were suing Pan American for damages, Los Angeles attorney Daniel C. Cathcart had referred to "a detailed FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) investigation of the Pan Am operation from the point of view of aviation safety." He was full of confidence. "I feel we have reason to believe," he added, "that the Pago Pago air crash litigation will be a matter of past history by this time next year." Read in 1981, with the action still going full blast, the words had an air of sad bravado.

On March 24, 1976, in his fourth progress report, Cathcart wrote:

In addition, we have uncovered a group of reports by Pan American pilots based at San Francisco, citing the dangerous practices engaged in by Pan American…..with the information which is now in admissible form, contained in the FAA investigation reports, Pan Am's own in-house investigations of its operation, as well as the report submitted by Pan Am pilots, I cannot believe that the management will permit this case to go to trial.

The contents of these reports are by court order not to be released to anyone. Once this case goes to trial the order will not apply, and the press will undoubtedly pick up these reports, and the international dissemination of these documents has the potential to destroy Pan American as an operating entity.

It was strong stuff. Clearly, these documents were of the utmost importance. Yet at this point the trail went cold. There were no press accounts that I could trace, nor any indication that the reports had been produced at the trial. And there was one further mystery: I had been shown the report quoted above by one of the survivors of the crash. Yet when the lawyer subsequently opened his files to me, with apparent total frankness, that letter was missing from the sequence of progress reports stretching over seven years. What was more, the later documents had been renumbered, so that there was no reason to suppose that one was missing. Had I not happened to chance upon it in New Zealand and had the accidental foresight to make a copy, I would never have known of this alleged sensational evidence.
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