Monday night, February 2, 1959 was a cold, wintery night in Northern Iowa. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was packed to the rafters for one of the biggest shows to ever come to the area…The Winter Dance Party, starring Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo.
Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson had helped Holly charter a private plane through Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City. After the second performance of the evening, around 12:05, Anderson gathered Holly, Valens and Richardson to take them to the airport. A light snow was beginning to fall as they gathered in the parking lot. DJ Bob Hale of KRIB in Mason City was outside with his wife, saying goodbye to the three stars.
Earlier in the evening, the Hales had dinner with Buddy, Richie and The Bopper, and invited them to their home in Clear Lake. Hale’s wife was pregnant at the time, and The Bopper kept talking about his wife being pregnant back in Texas, and how he couldn’t wait to get home to prepare for his new baby. In an interview that my friend Stew Salowitz did with Bob Hale several years ago, Hale said that they had taken several pictures with the stars that night, and later in the week, when he remembered the photo session, he went to take the film in to be developed. It had disappeared from the camera, a mystery that he never solved.
The weather was getting worse as Anderson’s station wagon neared the Mason City Airport. They arrived about 12:15, and the mood was described as “jubilant”, mainly because the stars were happy that they were going to arrive at their next destination in a couple of hours, compared to the ten hours it was going to take to make the trip on a cold bus. Pilot Roger Peterson had the plane ready and helped the performers put their bags into the already cramped cockpit. Finally, the musicians boarded the plane, The Bopper in back behind the pilot seat, and Valens next to him. Holly sat in front in the co-pilot’s seat.
According to reports, the flight should have never left the ground. There were two weather advisories that threatened limited visibility. Furthermore, the pilot, Roger Peterson, had failed to pass his last instrument flight test check. In other words, if they ran into a band of snow that caused limited visibility, a seasoned pilot would have to rely on instruments to stay on course, something Peterson was not qualified to do. The temperature was 18 degrees, and the wind was from the south gusting at 35 miles per hour as the plane taxied down the runway. At approximately 1 a.m., the plane left the ground and began a northwest course. Jerry Dwyer, the owner of the plane, watched it take off from the tower and immediately noticed that the plane appeared to be going down. The other man in the tower convinced him that it was just an optical illusion.
Later that morning, Bob Hale was on the air on KRIB. He got a report about a plane crash nearby but was waiting for further details. Minutes later, Carroll Anderson called and said that he had just been at the crash site. Hale recalls Anderson saying, “They’re all dead.” Hale immediately pulled the needle off the record he was playing and announced the sad news.
Within minutes after take-off, the plane encountered the weather front, which likely caused the pilot to lose visual reference. Sources speculate that Peterson was unable to properly read the instruments, and instead of climbing above the storm, he was actually going into a power dive. The plane came in level at a cruising speed of 172 miles per hour when it hit the frozen field. Upon impact, the plane split open and Holly and Valens were thrown from the plane. Richardson remained in the plane as it bounced along the ground, finally being thrown about 40 feet from where the plane came to rest. The pilot was the only one to remain in the plane. The bodies remained in the field during bitter cold conditions for about 10 hours, so even if they had miraculously survived the crash, they would have perished from exposure.
Even though this tragedy happened over 50 years ago, people still talk about it. They still gather every February 2nd at the Surf Ballroom to celebrate the final performance. Their music is still played on a regular basis.
As for myself, I feel Buddy Holly’s spirit every time I play one of his songs. He was only 22 years old when he died, but had already left an incredible impact on popular music. Al Stewart may have summed it up best in “Post World War II Blues”:
“I can still remember the last time I cried, the day that Buddy Holly died. I never met him so it may seem strange, don’t some people just affect you that way.”