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Stroke claims Sonora woman who survived 1972 plane crash into Sacramento restaurant

47 years ago, 22 people died in Farrell’s plane crash (September 1972)

On Sept. 24, 1972, a restored Korean War-era jet lost control on a runway at Executive Airport in Sacramento during an air show, skidded across Freeport Boulevard, crashed into the popular Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor and killed 22 people.
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On Sept. 24, 1972, a restored Korean War-era jet lost control on a runway at Executive Airport in Sacramento during an air show, skidded across Freeport Boulevard, crashed into the popular Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor and killed 22 people.

Kerri Francis McCluskey of Sonora survived the 1972 crash of a plane into a Sacramento ice cream parlor. Her 3-year-old twin and 21 other people died.

The family is mourning again. McCluskey, 50, died Jan. 17 of a stroke, the second she had suffered since 2016. The first slowed her career as a school counselor, but she had made recent progress, her family said.

McCluskey drew media attention with her effort to build a memorial at the former Farrell’s site, completed in 2003. The plaques, benches and other features pay peaceful tribute to one of the most harrowing days in the Central Valley’s history.

“(The crash) is something that had a lot to do with what Kerri became,” husband Andrew McCluskey said by phone Tuesday. “... This community, and the education community in particular, will really feel her absence.”

The McCluskeys have two daughters and a son, ages 14 to 21.

Identical twins Kerri and Kristi Francis were born Jan. 14, 1969, to Roger and Kathy Francis, who lived in Stockton at the time. The girls had gone with their babysitter’s family to Farrell’s on Sept. 24, 1972.

The chain restaurant sat across the street from Sacramento Executive Airport, where an airshow was taking place that Sunday afternoon. An F-86 Sabre fighter jet from the Korean War era crashed during takeoff at an estimated 150 mph.

Kristi was one of 12 children who died. The crash killed nine members of one family and four in another. Kerri was among the 25 people injured, with a broken leg and cuts.

Roger, Kathy and Kerri Francis later moved to Tuolumne County, where the extended family already was prominent in education. Roger’s mother, Dorothy Francis, had been principal-superintendent of Columbia and Soulsbyville elementary schools. Roger’s career included assistant principal at Sonora High School, where brother Rick Francis was a long-time basketball coach.

Kathy Francis retired from teaching at Columbia and is now in her sixth term on the Sonora Elementary School board. The latter is where daughter Kerri worked as a counselor until the first of her strokes.

It paralyzed her left side, but therapy got her to the point that she could work one day a week in a motorized scooter, her family said. The second happened Dec. 31 and proved fatal.

The family sees a link between the plane crash and McCluskey’s career in counseling, where she sometimes aided grieving students.

“Because of the loss of her twin when she was 3 years, 9 months, it gave her a feeling of helping others who are having hard times,” Kathy Francis said.

Andrew McCluskey recalled how his wife brought anti-drug and anti-bullying lessons to students, sometimes with the help of inmates. He himself is a correctional counselor at Sierra Conservation Center, a state prison west of Jamestown.

He and Kerri met in 1991 and married two years later. They were living in Elk Grove when the idea for the Farrell’s memorial came about. They and others raised about $32,000.

“This memorial is not only to remember this tragedy, but to remind us of how fragile life is,” Kerri said at the dedication, as reported by The Sacramento Bee. “Believe with the heart of a child and find courage, comfort and strength there.”

The memorial is part of Sacramento’s police and fire headquarters, near the still-operating airport. Farrell’s never reopened.

The McCluskeys named their oldest child Kristin in memory of her aunt. She is now 21. Her brother Connor is 18, and sister Annika is 14.

The Farrell’s nightmare had one positive result: It highlighted the need for better treatment of burn victims. Sacramento firefighter Cliff Haskell created the Firefighters Burn Institute, which worked with UC Davis Medical Center to establish a burn unit that opened in 1974.

That world-class unit treated Modesto firefighter Jim Adams after he was badly injured in a 2010 house fire. He returned to active duty 13 months later. In September 2012, he met Kerri Francis McCluskey at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the plane crash,

“Something good came out of something so horrific,” she told The Modesto Bee at the time.

A celebration of life will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at Sonora Elementary School, 830 Greenley Road. Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.