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LaPlace man recalls lifesaving actions in 1967 plane crash

LAPLACE – Joseph Murray became a hero on March 30, 1967, the night he and other teenagers working at the Hilton Inn of Kenner raced door-to-door to save guests after a Delta Airlines jet crash engulfed the hotel in scorching flames.

Murray is now in his 70s and resides in LaPlace. He has 25 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren who know little about the night that changed his life. Murray feels the Delta Airlines DC-8 crash has been largely forgotten, but he remembers it clearly.

He was 18 years old. He had worked two shifts in the kitchen that day, morning and evening. One of his coworkers was dancing in the hallway. Little did Murray know at the time that it was the last time he’d see him.

About 15 minutes after midnight, the Hilton Inn started shaking and the lights cut out. Murray felt the force of a colossal impact. He went to investigate and saw a plane had crashed and that a telephone post had fallen into the kitchen. Flames were licking at the ground.

Murray rushed to locate his brother, Marchel, who also worked at the Hilton. The brothers, along with their friend Willie Russell, immediately knew what to do amid the chaos; fire was spreading, and they needed to help people escape.

“We ran around. I had a flashlight and I was beating on doors, trying to get people out and tell them a plane had crashed,” Murray said.

Another young Hilton employee, Clarence Wilkens of LaPlace, was off-duty and waiting for the bus where the plane crashed. When he saw the fire, he rushed back to the Inn to help.

A student from Illinois who was staying at the hotel witnessed the crash and told local media, “Everything was orange everywhere.”

The manager of the hotel was frozen in place, staring in disbelief at the scene before him, according to Murray’s recollection.

Murray remembers helping between 20 and 30 people escape their hotel rooms. Many didn’t want to believe him until they saw the flames with their own eyes, and some even cursed him for disturbing their sleep. It was worth it, though, because the people were sent safely to the airport.

The memories of the people he couldn’t save still haunt him. To this day, tears spring into Murray’s eyes when he thinks of nine teenage girls who were trapped in their room. He had seen them earlier by the pool. Hours later, they suffocated from smoke inhalation.

“They were hollering and I went up there to try to help them, but the heat from the plane…I couldn’t get them out,” Murray said, tears blotting his eyes. He regrets never getting to tell their parents that he tried his best to save them.

Other heartbreaking fatalities included an engineer he’d prepared food for and the young man who was dancing jovially in the hallway.

“We stayed there all night, until 6 in the morning,” Murray said. “My parents were worried about us.”

 

Certificates of merit are held by six employees of the Hilton Inn for their part in evacuating guests after the crash of the Delta Airline’s DC-8. From left are Clarence Wilkens, Joseph Malecki, Mayor Victor H. Schiro, Alfred Norah, Willie Russell, Joseph Murray and Marchel Murray.

After the smoke cleared, Jefferson Parish officials took note of the heroism demonstrated during the fire. The Murray brothers, Russell and Wilkens were honored along with hotel employees Alfred Norah and Joseph Malecki for acts of bravery. The six employees received keys to the city, certificates of merit and were named honorary sheriff’s deputies. Hilton Inn manager George Mandis awarded each of the boys a $50 savings bond, which Murray gave to his mother.

Thomas F. Donelon, parish president at the time for Jefferson Parish, praised them for illustrating a “great love for their fellow man.” Kenner Mayor Eddie D’Gerolamo expressed that many more lives would have been lost from the crash if it had not been for the youths’ lifesaving actions.

After the initial recognition, the incident was rarely brought up again.

“A lot of people I talk to have never heard of it. I want people to know we were there at that time and we were forgotten,” Murray said. “I want people to know I was good all my life. I raised my family right. I never had to worry about them getting in trouble.”

Murray is proud of the life he’s built in the decades since the accident.

His daughter successfully runs a casino. His wife and another one of his children operate Little Blessings Daycare in LaPlace, and Murray still enjoys cooking for his family so they have a hot meal when they get home from work.