Harold Gifford (left), Jim Herzog (bottom, right), JIm Holznagel (hidden behind Herzog) and Carroll Mayor Jim Pedelty take part in the unveiling of a commemorative marker during a ceremony held Monday night marking the 50th anniversary of the miracle landing of an airplane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team in a cornfield outside of Carroll in 1960. Holznagel was a pilot trainee, Gifford was the co-pilot of the DC-3 and Herzog was one of the first residents to reach the plane, which landed without gauges, lights or a clear windshield at 1:40 a.m. in a snowstorm. The marker will be placed at a city park near the spot where the plane touched down. Daily Times Herald photos by Jeff Storjohann
Harold Gifford (left), Jim Herzog (bottom, right), JIm Holznagel (hidden behind Herzog) and Carroll Mayor Jim Pedelty take part in the unveiling of a commemorative marker during a ceremony held Monday night marking the 50th anniversary of the miracle landing of an airplane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team in a cornfield outside of Carroll in 1960. Holznagel was a pilot trainee, Gifford was the co-pilot of the DC-3 and Herzog was one of the first residents to reach the plane, which landed without gauges, lights or a clear windshield at 1:40 a.m. in a snowstorm. The marker will be placed at a city park near the spot where the plane touched down. Daily Times Herald photos by Jeff Storjohann
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

With electricity on the plane dead, visibility limited to what pilots could see by sticking their heads out the window of the plane and snow and ice confounding seemingly every move, a DC-3 carrying the Minneapolis Lakers made a successful emergency landing in Carroll 50 years ago Monday.

As the plane emerged from an altitude as high as 17,000 feet into a blinding snow storm pilots used U.S. 71 north of Carroll, the water tower, courthouse and home lights for makeshift navigation that led to a landing in a cornfield in what is today the Collison Addition.

Co-pilot Harold Gifford, now 86, said he recalls one of his first thoughts upon seeing Carroll from the distressed plane a half century ago.

“People down there are living and that’s what I want to do, too,” Gifford said.

The plane was en route to Minneapolis from St. Louis, where the Lakers had just lost to the Hawks in the team’s last year of play before moving on to Los Angeles.

Two of the three men piloting the plane returned to Carroll for a commemorative event Monday night at the Chamber of Commerce’s Harold Bierl Room. More than 100 people attended the event, many of whom were old enough to recall the landing.

The Carroll County Historical Society participated in the unveiling of a $1,300 marker that will be placed in Veterans Memorial Park, just feet from the landing site, to recognize the Jan. 18. 1960 event.

Minutes after the plane touched ground at 1:40 a.m. in a cornfield that hadn’t been harvested because of a wet fall, its 23 passengers — none of them injured — were receiving assistance from local residents.

“These strangers immediately received aid from the citizens of Carroll,” said Kuemper Catholic High School educator John Steffes, a history enthusiast who served as chief organizer for the commemoration.

Steffes looked to co-pilot Gifford and added, “I know our great town would do the same if you ever want to land in Carroll again.”

Fifty years ago, Jim Holznagel of Mora, Minn., was a 22-year-old trainee aboard the Lakers’ flight.

“We had quite a night to say the least,” Holznagel said. “God was there. He was with us throughout that flight.”

Holznagel related a detailed account of the harrowing flight.

He recalled using flashlights to shine on the navigation gauges that would work on the plane, only to have the flashlights go dead until he was eventually down to a pen light.

The outside of the airplane was totally iced up as were the inside windows. Holznagel at one point tried without success to use a razor blade from his shaving kit to chip ice from the windows.

Pilots took the non-pressurized plane as high as possible in an attempt to escape storm systems, but soon they had to seek a way out and start down.

“We didn’t know if we were in Iowa, North Dakota — or Florida,” Holznagel said.

Gifford, who had experience flying in the area, had urged a westerly move around Des Moines to avoid communications towers there.

“We just, God thank you, ran into Carroll,” Holznagel said.

Pilots used U.S. 71 as a guide and at one point, likely near Auburn based on their descriptions, nearly hit a patch of trees.

They maneuvered the plane south and over to Grant Road in Carroll, finding the corn stalks, which stood out as dark contrasts in the snow and provided depth perception for the landing.

Holznagel said he can vividly recall the sounds of the landing.

“I could hear the corn stalks, ‘Blum, bah, blum,’” he said.

Once on the ground, Holznagel opened a side door and leaped out into the cornfield.

The rest of the passengers were silent for a time before breaking out into loud cheers.

“Talk about, ‘hoorah,’” Holznagel said, noting that Lakers players actually started a snowball fight after getting off the plane.

For his part, Gifford said the pilots were exceptionally fortunate to have found Carroll for a number of reasons, primarily for the presence of U.S. 71 but also for other landmarks that served as emergency guides.

“Someone once said a coincidence is a miracle in which God stays anonymous,” Gifford said.

Steffes conferred hero status on Gifford earlier in the program by referencing the pilot Chelsey Sullenberger III, who saved a US Airways plane with an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York City last year.

“We could call him (Gifford) Carroll’s own Captain Sullenberger,” Steffes said.

A World War II veteran, Gifford said the plane landing in Carroll, did not involve heroism at all, but rather experience, luck and providence.

“There’s no such thing as heroes when you’re just trying to save your own life,” said Gifford, who now resides in the Twin Cities area in Woodbury, Minn.

Another present-day Minnesota resident, Jim Herzog of Delano, was a traveling shoe salesman living in Carroll in 1960. He left Carroll in 1964 but returned Monday to recall being one of the first residents on the scene of the plane landing. He’d hurried to the point of putting his clothes on over pajamas after seeing the plane go over his house on 20th Street at a low level.

Herzog hopped in his car and eventually hitched a ride from downtown in a car that followed a fire truck down Grant Road to the landing location.

He joked that his final role that night was to carry two of the players’ bags from the plane to the cars that were waiting to take them to the former Burke Hotel. The players would be bused out of town the next morning, and the plane’s electrical system would be repaired so it could leave days later from a makeshift runway created with a plow in the field.

Since 1960 the Lakers have gone on to become one of the more iconic franchises in sports history.

The present-day Los Angeles Lakers understand the role Carroll played in the team’s history, according to a letter executive vice president of the team, Jeanie Buss, sent Carroll Mayor Jim Pedelty. Pedelty read the letter at the ceremony Monday.

“It is quite feasible that had the team been wiped out that night this legendary franchise might not have endured,” Buss said in the letter. “The citizens of Carroll should take pride in their role of sheltering the Lakers team so that they could become the universally known and celebrated world champions that exist today.” (See the full letter on today’s editorial page.)

Pedelty also read a letter from former Minneapolis Lakers player Dick Garmaker, who was one of the survivors that night.

Garmaker said he always has a “soft spot” for Carroll.

“The memory is still vivid and to this day seems miraculous,” Garmaker said.

Barbara Hackfort, president of the Carroll County Historical Society, said the landing is one of the events that helped shape Carroll.

“With this monument we now have a visual memento of a time and place through which we, the citizens of Carroll, bequeath a unique page of local history to posterity,” Hackfort said.