Saturday, January 20, 2007

1 a.m. Feb. 3, 1959, 5 miles northwest of Mason City, Iowa

That's the time, date and place of the Beechcraft Bonanza crash that killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, as well as 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson.

Now Richardson's son Jay, who does tribute shows as "The Big Bopper Jr.," is having his dad's body examined by forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm." The younger Richardson says he hopes to put some longstanding rumors and doubts to rest.

With all due respect to a son who lost his father -- one whose grief is made even more complex by the fact that he wasn't born until after his father died -- it's hard to imagine what more there is to know, after all these years. The Sept. 15, 1959, Civil Aeronautics Board report on the crash concluded, on ample evidence, that the disoriented pilot, flying only on unfamiliar instruments, simply flew the plane into the ground.

In the decades since, conspiracy theorists have made much of the fact that Holly carried his handgun aboard the plane, saying he might have shot the pilot by accident while horsing around, leaving a bullet wound that the local coroner might have overlooked when presented with an obvious plane-crash victim. No evidence whatsoever supports this theory, which moreover contradicts all the evidence of Holly's previous behavior that evening, and on the bus earlier on the tour. Far more likely to assume that Holly boarded the plane and immediately tried to get some sleep.

The younger Richardson says he's also intrigued by the fact that his father's body was found 40 feet from the plane to the northwest (in an adjoining cornfield, actually), while Holly's body and Valens' body were found 17 feet from the plane to the south and southwest. (The full coroner's report is here.) He wonders whether his dad crawled free of the crash. But the plane hit the ground at full speed and tumbled until it came to rest against a barbed-wire fence, and investigators found that most of the seat belts had broken; surely that's explanation enough for the scattering of the bodies.

Sometimes -- indeed, most of the time -- accidents just happen. Even if the victims are famous.

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