WNBC Traffic Helicopter Crash





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Published on Aug 15, 2007

Jane was the tall, engaging lead singer (Leila), keyboardist, and songwriter of the 1970s/1980s San Francisco "tack" rock group Leila And The Snakes. Pearl Gates and Pamela Wood provided supporting vocals. Their repertoire included "Rock And Roll Weirdos", "Pyramid Power", and a spoof version of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?". Gates later left the band (and took the band with her) to form Pearl Harbor and The Explosions.

She provided lead vocals on "Christopher Columbus" (1978), a song by R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders. With Ron Nagle, she co-wrote the humorous hit song "Don't Touch Me There" for The Tubes. The song was sung by Re Styles and appeared on The Tubes' second studio album, Young And Rich (1976), and was released as a 7" single in the US, the UK, and Holland. The B-side was "Proud To Be an American". Jane had also toured with The Tubes as a backing singer and dancer.

Dornacker was also an actress. She appeared in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera "Inacoma" at San Francisco's Magic Theatre (1977) and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre. She appeared in The Stand-Up, Anita Sperm, and as the mysterious Nurse Murch in the film The Right Stuff.

Jane developed a successful career as a stand-up comedian on the San Francisco circuit and did her first work as a traffic reporter for KFRC, a popular radio station. She worked with Dr. Don Rose, who was a popular disc jockey at the time. As she did traffic, she would tell her daughter Naomi to get up and get to school. When Dornacker died, Rose arranged several tributes to help Naomi with college. She moved to New York City to become a much loved raspy-voiced "trafficologist" and "Jane-in-a-plane".

Helicopter crash

On October 22, 1986, at 4:44 PM, while Dornacker was giving one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports during the Joey Reynolds Radio show on WNBC Radio in New York City, the helicopter she was reporting from plunged into the Hudson River from an altitude of roughly 75 feet. On her final radio broadcast she was giving a report of an accident involving a tractor trailer and a car as well as a car fire. She also stated that the outbound Holland Tunnel was heavy with traffic and that the Lincoln Tunnel was much better with traffic and a car fire. Dornacker was starting her report for incoming New Jersey traffic when the helicopter stalled in mid broadcast.

Crash aftermath

The helicopter nosedived, struck the top of a chain link fence at a river pier, crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore and sank in 15 to 20 feet of water. Both occupants were trapped for nearly 10-15 minutes before help arrived. Jane Dornacker died on her way to Saint Vincent's Hospital. She was 39 years old. Her pilot and only other occupant, Bill Pate, was severely injured but survived. In the subsequent investigation, the NTSB found that the sprag clutch that was installed in the helicopter (on lease to WNBC Radio) was a military surplus part which was not designed for use in a civilian aircraft, and that the part had not been adequately lubricated. It directly led to a mid-air seizure of the main rotor blades. The staff of WNBC were so appalled at the revelation of this malpractice that at one point they threatened to resign en masse.

Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, received $325,000 in a settlement with the owner and maker of the helicopter. What made Dornacker's death even more tragic is that Naomi's father Bob Knickerbocker died shortly before her mother's death.

All the New York stations grounded their traffic helicopters for a few days after that accident.

It is likely that Jane Dornacker's screams of "Hit the water!" were imploring the pilot to avoid a collision with the pier/fence below them.

A memorial concert in celebration of Jane took place at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, November 22, 1986.

There is a memorial to her in Wayne, N.J., where she and her family lived.


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