Lonsdale St. recalls the night when a plane dived out of the misty sky

By 
Tom Mulvoy
Jun. 20, 2007

"It's now 20 years ago," says Dorothy Byrnes McCormack from her home at 38 Lonsdale Street, "but some nights I hear the faraway sound of an approaching airplane and my mind flinches and brings back the memories. It's funny that way; my husband doesn't hear a thing."

Next door, at No. 34, Kathie Tully sometimes hears the drone of an engine, but generally she pays it scant notice. For her, that night was long ago.

"I first figured it was a drunk hitting my car," she told reporters in the days after the accident. Then the enormity of what had happened hit her. "I thought it was over for me and my mother. But looking back now what I take from the experience is that I had wonderful neighbors and friends who leaped in to help. It's very much a Dorchester-y thing the way people reacted. What can we do? That's what we heard no matter where we turned."

The longtime neighbors are talking about the early morning hours of June 26, 1987, when a small Piper Seneca airplane, the pilot its lone occupant, broke out of the mist and low clouds over Lonsdale Street and crashed into the Tully home, setting off a conflagration that destroyed three houses, left three residents in the hospital, three families and their tenants homeless, demolished ten parked cars, and damaged several nearby dwellings.

Those who were at the scene that morning still marvel that the holocaust took only one life, that of the pilot, Peter Covich, a 21-year-old from Nashua, N.H., who was transporting bundles of a financial newspaper from New Jersey to Boston for Cash Air Inc. of Lawrence.

And everyone marvels at the pluck of Kay Tully, Kathie's mother, then 80 years old, who just the day before had returned home from the hospital after back surgery. She was sleeping in a back bedroom on the second floor when the plane hit. With the assistance of her daughter, she made her way to the rear porch and then over the chain-link fence in the backyard as noise and flames and smoke and the smell of burning matter filled the nighttime air.

Mrs. Tully was nothing if not a survivor; she was treated for severe burns while spending the next eight weeks in the hospital. Eventually, she moved back into her new home on the old family plot. She died in September 2004, at 98, after taking her full share, and then some, of what a very busy life had to offer.

Her daughter, and Estelle Dion, a tenant at No. 34, also suffered severe burns that required hospitalization, a few days for Ms. Dion and two weeks for Ms. Tully.

The money loss of the crash was put at $2 million, but that didn't account for the destruction of several generations' worth of memories and memorabilia belonging to the Byrneses, the Tullys, and George and Bridey Knauber, who owned the flattened house at No. 30.

The western end of Lonsdale Street leading up to Dorchester Avenue offers a variety of housing styles: mostly two-family homes, an occasional three-decker, and a single or two, all of them tucked closely together. When dawn broke on June 26, 1987, the devastation that greeted onlookers at Numbers 30, 34, and 38, was right out of post-war Berlin, 1945 -- piles of rubble and clouds of dust where home and hearth for three families used to be.

Today, the rebuilt homes at the site blend into the neighborhood with barely a nod to the destruction wrought by Peter Covich's small plane. Three key players in the 20-year-old drama &endash; Kathie Tully, Dorothy Byrnes McCormack, and Bridey Knauber &endash; are still living at their longtime addresses.

And planes still fly by overhead as they move in and out of Logan Airport several miles away. Flight patterns may change, but traffic in the skies over the city's neighborhoods will always be a reality.

"When the name Lonsdale Street comes up," says McCormack, "everyone remembers the plane crash. You hear all sorts of stories, like how we got a new house out of this tragedy. But we didn't. We &endash; my mother, who died in 1990, my sister and my two brothers &endash; had no mortgage on the house before the accident, but we didn't have any insurance, either. We moved into our new home in March 1988, with a mortgage."

The Tullys and the Knaubers did have insurance, but not enough to cover the costs of building new houses from scratch.

(According to a story in the Aug. 20, 1987, edition of The Boston Globe, the insurance company for Cash Air, Inc., owner of the Piper plane, refused to pay any liability damages incurred by Cash Air on Lonsdale Street, citing several ways that Cash did not adhere to policy stipulations.)

Kathie Tully, a retired special education teacher who puts in full shifts as a volunteer for institutions like My Brother's Keeper and the Holy Cross Father retreat house in Easton and St. Mark's School in Dorchester, where she works with kindergarteners, is not a woe-is-me person. Her can-do approach to everything she gets involved in is infectious. When she was asked back in 1987 if she had an issue with God over the crash and its effects, she said "I'm not blaming God. Maybe God is using this as a way of bringing other people to him."

She feels the same way today, remembering fondly how the generosity of her parish neighbors &endash; a fund drive started on Day One raised thousands of dollars to help tide over the families who had lost their homes -- and of total strangers made angry feelings hard to come by. "It's that Dorchester-y thing again," she says.

McCormack, a nurse who works a night shift at St. Joseph's Manor, a nursing home in Dorchester, also says that help from friends, neighbors, and strangers helped her family get through the darkest days of doing without the necessities of life. "Father [William] Devine and Father [Arthur] Calter and Father [John] Ronaghan were immense in making us feel that things were going to get better," she says.

Still, one thing has bothered her since the morning of the crash: "In all these years, no official from any governmental agency has said a word to me. The only ones who asked were reporters. My family and I and our neighbors were blasted out of our homes and sent scrambling for our lives in the middle of the night because a plane crashed onto our street. Don't you think someone who bears official responsibility for our safety should have reached out to us about our experience? I'm still waiting." NTSB blamed pilot's error

In a report issued on Oct. 25, 1988, 16 months after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board assigned pilot error as the probable cause of the accident, citing "spatial disorientation" by the pilot, lack of attention to "procedures and directives, lack of total pilot experience in type of aircraft," and the dark night with its fog and low ceiling.