50 years later, family still looking for closure following Seattle World’s Fair tragedy
By Katie Burke
UW News Lab
The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair opened with a bang on April 21. For some, it was the most exciting day of their life. But for the Rutka family – and many others with homes along the Shoreline/Mountlake Terrace border – it meant losing almost everything they owned.
Moments after then-President John F. Kennedy pressed the telegraph key to start the fair, aerial bombs burst, bells clanged, thousands of balloons went up into the air, and 10 Air Force F-102s soared over the massive crowds. Alexander and Katharina Rutka and their four children – Karl, Karen, Karleen and Kimberly – were in British Columbia visiting their grandparents for Easter break and missing the excitement back home. But on that day, as they were sitting around a table eating lunch and enjoying the spring sunshine, the old wall-mounted phone in the kitchen rang.
“My father suddenly dropped the receiver,” said Karl Rutka, who now lives in Vancouver, B.C. “He was leaning against the wall, and he just collapsed to the floor.” The news they heard was that one of those 10 Air Force planes had crashed in their neighborhood, destroying their home and killing their two neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Smith. “Afterwards, as more calls began to come from friends in Seattle and the details were relayed, it was obvious there was no hoax, the reality began to take hold,” Rutka added.
According to History Link, moments after the flyby ended, one of the planes’ engines flamed out at 1,500 feet elevation. The pilot, Capt. Joseph W. Wildt, tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine, and decided to ditch the F102. He was able to safely eject himself near Lake Washington.
Wildt thought that he would be able to crash land the plane in Lake Washington, but he misaimed by three miles. The plane ultimately soared over the lake right into the Rutka home, located at 20044 24th Ave. N.E., in what is now Shoreline, just a few blocks from the King/Snohomish County line. Wildt failed to calculate the effects of his weight loss on the trajectory of the plane.
Kimberly Moran, who lived about six blocks away in Mountlake Terrace at the time of the crash, remembers seeing the plane flying very low at about house level, then “looking up and seeing a gray flash,” Moran, who was 5 years old at the time, also recalls running down the street with her mom and the neighbors to check out the crash aftermath.
When the Rutka family returned home, Karl Rutka remembers the eerie aftershock from the crash.
“The disaster scene radiated out from the point of impact: There was much broken concrete, pieces of foundation and driveway strewn all over yards of neighboring houses, even on the roofs of homes,” he said. “The path of destruction was so strange.”
The home was now a huge blackened hole, with only the recreation room left standing. Tattered roofing hung about, splintered wood littered every square foot of the ground, and parts of the concrete foundation still remained, leaving remnants of the house that once stood in the same place.
The debris trail from the Rutka house led across the road to where the Smiths’ house once stood. Their burned car sat in the driveway and their house was gone. Rutka said neighbors who witnessed the crash told his father that the Smiths were home, and Raymond Smith had opened the front door to see what the noise was just a split second before the impact occurred.
“My imagination captured the scene of the jet clipping off the top of the cedar tree, touching down on the grass, exploding into our house then launching again and killing Mr. Smith and his wife,” Rutka said. “I dreamt about that scene for a long time afterward. What it must have been like.”
In addition to killing the Smiths and destroying both their home and the Rutkas’, the crash damaged five other houses in the neighborhood. After sifting through the remains of their property and surveying the site, Rutka said his parents spent a long time conferring with officers from the base and were told to go to Paine Field and they would be taken care of.
With no furnishings and only the clothes in their suitcases from their trip to Canada, the family spent a short time in some accommodations at the base,. They rented a house at 16817 15th Ave. N.E., then later moved to Lake Forest Park so the kids could be closer to the schools they were attending at the time of the crash.
“It was a very tumultuous time,” Rutka said. “We needed to change schools, we needed to see to the demolition of what remained of our house and clean up the property, and my dad had to get back to work. I honestly do not know how my parents kept it together during that time.”
The home lost in the crash was, as Rutka said, his mother’s “dream house.” After years of menial work, his father was just beginning a new job at a mill in Ballard. His parents were finally seeing some progress, and moving into the home represented the “culmination of many dreams.” His mother painted and gardened around the modest house, working tirelessly to make it into what she envisioned. Now it was time for the family to start all over.
Very recently – on April 6 – an event similar to the 1962 World’s Fair crash occurred in Virginia Beach, Va. A Navy training jet suffered a mechanical malfunction and crashed into an apartment building, sending two pilots and five people on the ground to the hospital.
This accident resulted in residents receiving government checks to help pay for food, clothing and housing for two weeks while they figured out what to do. According to the Huffington Post, Navy officials estimate initial payments started at $2,300 for individual residents, with more going to families.
Rutka said he remembers some kind of temporary living allowance, yet to this day said he believes it was nowhere near enough to make up for the loss of their home.
“I remember thinking that it was the military and because my father was in the Navy during the war at Pearl Harbor, everything would be taken care of somehow,” he said. “The truth is, we were wrong. No one had to tell me we were not fairly compensated, I knew it.”
The least the government could have done, Rutka said, was to rebuild the home and offer something for the inconvenience and trauma of being completely disrupted and having to start from scratch.
He and his father were left to tear apart the remains of the house themselves, because once the Air Force investigation was complete, they were told it had to come down.
“I won’t ever forget these days: My father and I working together in the soot and ashes where our home once stood, tearing down what was left of a dream,” he said. “I was 12 years old. I looked at my father and saw his tears. I didn’t need anyone to tell me it wasn’t fair.
Karl’s sister, Karleen Rutka Goodwin, said there was some ensuing litigation to try to recover some of the home’s worth. Goodwin, of Mill Creek, said she believes her parents received a $2,000 to $3,000 settlement for everything, and back then, “you did not sue the government.” Her parents decided not to pursue legal action because “this was all they could handle.
“I suppose it was fair, what more could they have done at that point?” she said. “In today’s standards I would say, ‘No, it was not fair.’”
After receiving the settlement from the government, Rutka’s father showed him the check and told him it was “a pittance.” Both Rutka and Goodwin said the home’s destruction took a toll on their parents’ health. While most of the damage was emotional, Goodwin said that physically, the accident was incredibly taxing, and the children watched them both deteriorate. Their father died in 1986 at age 64, and their mother passed away in 1993 at 65.
“I don’t feel we ever really recovered from the crash,” she said. “It changed our world forever. It took everything from us that we considered a safe haven. To a child, this is everlasting devastation.”
To this day, both Rutka children have a distaste for the government. Goodwin is still holding on to newspaper clippings and trying to find closure for the accident.
Karl Rutka became an alcoholic and spent 20 years trying to recover, and finally sought treatment in 2006. Still, he holds no one in contempt for what occurred.
“I wish it wouldn’t have happened, but it did,” he said. “It happened at the World’s Fair.”
Katie Burke is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.