Cuesta abajo Tango
Ricardo Ostuni

Medellín, that afternoon in June

fter sixty-five years of the tragedy we still argue about its origins, because Medellín sealed the history of Gardel with a final share of mystery.

The official report says that: «The accident was originated only and exclusively in two closely related causes, but of different nature, beyond the control of the people in charge of the F-31 and Manizales three-engine airplanes. The first is of a permanent type and is due to the topographic and aerological deficiencies, characteristic of the “Olaya Herrera” airfield of the city of Medellín. The second is of an occasional kind and is due to an aerological phenomenon inherent to the above mentioned airfield and which consists in the sudden appearance of a gust that takes place, generally in the afternoon hours and which lasts only a few minutes... On June 24 that phenomenon happened about ten seconds before the crash with an intensity of 6-7 Beaufort of a southwest direction...»

However, still today there are diverse versions that disagree with what was stated at that report. Some of them talk of the alleged rivalry between the two enterprises that were protagonists of the tragedy: SACO (Sociedad Aérea Colombiana)[Colombian Air Society] and SCADTA (Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéreos) [Colombian-German Society of Air Transportation] or more precisely between the pilots Ernesto Samper Mendoza and Hans Ulrich Thom. Others speak of an eventual dispute between Gardel and Le Pera (or Gardel and Samper Mendoza), which would have ended with a fatal shot in the pilot's neck.

José María Aguilar, one of the three survivors of the flames, was always hesitant in his statements about the subject. On June 6, 1936 he told the magazine Novela —Nº 962— that the tragedy occurred because of an old dispute between the two pilots, so confirming the suspicion most generalized. However Isabel del Valle (in the book Ser Gardel, Ediciones PXP December 1990, page 22) said she had heard from Aguilar another reckless version: «I repeat what Aguilar told me... he said that Le Pera —who was the producer— made Carlos sing at an open air stadium and, of course, without amplification, the audience, that was not hearing well, showed their discomfort... That put Carlos into a bad mood and decided to split with Le Pera... Both argued on the airplane and Alfredo drew a gun and shot, but the bullet instead of hitting Carlos, hit the neck of a certain Samper and so the plane became out of control...»

In another interview published for the fourth anniversary of the event, Aguilar modified completely his sayings. He declared that the plane had excess weight in cargo and that, for that reason, when landing in Medellín it had lost stability, almost as anticipating the tragedy; that at this airport the weight of the airplane was even more increased with twelve reels of films that were placed under the seats, adding: «At the time of the crash nobody moved. It was said that Carlitos shouted and hit against the glass. The truth is that a wing of the three-engine plane, against which we had crashed, broke into the F-31 and beheaded some of its occupants. It was known much later that Carlitos Gardel had both legs severed and he had other deadly injuries, so his suffering probably was not long...»

On the Act of recovery of the corpses after the sinister signed by the doctors Antonio J. Osapina, Luciano Restrepo Isaza, Julio Ortiz Velásquez and Luis Carlos Montoya, it is stated that the number 11 corresponds to the Gardel's corpse «found lying down and squeezed by the valves of one of the engines. He has a gold chain without watch, some kind of bracelet in his wrist. Hanging from his clothes a chain with some keys and a small tin plaque on which was read this:- Carlos Gardel, Juan Jaures 735 Buenos Aires... Close to the singer and burnt at the edges, the original music sheets of “Cuesta abajo” were found.»

This same story is repeated in the Folder Three of the indictment drawn up at the Second High Court of Medellín where the conclusions of the autopsy performed on the mortal remains of Gardel were recorded.

All the investigations made in later years, insist on emphasizing, as fundamental cause of the tragedy, the rivalry between both pilots.

Terencio Spaini —an argentinian expert on aircrafts and air accidents— in the forties published his own conclusions about it, after analyzing the collected documentation concerning the accident and the statements of all the witnesses in the case: «It is impossible to understand what happened without seeing clearly that the airplanes that were involved in the drama, belonged to two companies which rivaled ferociously». It was not an occasional dispute because there were national interests at play, involving «concepts of patriotism, of sovereignty, of emancipation and, to say it in terms used now, of liberation».

SCADTA was a German air commercial enterprise —the first based in the American continent and the second in the world— and it was a tool of the spreading plans of nazism. Furthermore, Ernesto Samper Mendoza «was not any man» but a pioneer and a flag bearer of the national pride. «His thirst of independence pushed him to put together the SACO company with his own money».

Due to these rivalries, SCADTA´s pilot Hans Ulrich Thom, on June 20, prior to the tragedy, at the Techo airfield had made «a descent close to the level of the ground, showing his great skill above the Samper Mendoza's F-31 plane... These types of frictions created a very special situation that made that on June 24, 1935 the national self pride of Samper pushed him to scare back his German colleague heading the aircraft towards the latter's plane, at a risky move that was perfect. But other factors appeared and the catastrophe took place.»

The same opinion was picked up by Federico Silva in his Informe Sobre Gardel (Editorial Alfa, Montevideo 1971) from Dr. Gilberto López's lips: «During the time I worked for SCADTA I realized there was a noticeable bad mood of all the workers of that company against the pilot Ernesto Samper. I also recall that the employees Jesús Celis and Jesús Padilla, told me about their fear that an accident in Palanquero may happen to Samper and I foresaw that something would happen to him, but it seemed that the accident was to take place in Palanquero but not in Medellín».

Spaini contradicted the sayings of Aguilar demonstrating that the planes had not excess weight in cargo, but like the latter he spoke about a gun shot: «The autopsy on the Colombian pilot —performed by Dr. Tamayo Lemos— evidenced a shot in the head ... The shot came from below (the bullet was incrusted in the head after having run through the maxillary. Here the theory which says that he was shot from behind, that is to say from inside the plane itself, is destroyed».

The news of the day after the tragedy said that copilot of the Manizales, Wilhan Furts had been «found dead with a pistol in his hand and a burnt cartridge very near» suggesting that he had committed suicide because the disaster was unavoidable.

So says the Colombian writer Mario Sarmiento Vargas (La verdad sobre la muerte de Carlos Gardel [The Truth About Carlos Gardel´s Death], published in 1945): «the identifiers found the body of the said pilot completely burnt, with his hands up and his right hand was grabbing a pistol from which a bullet had been shot. His skull although thoroughly burnt allowed to see the hole where the bullet had entered; that is to say that facing the imminent and unavoidable danger of dying burnt, he preferred to commit suicide».

Spaini's conclusion was different. He thought that «the copilot (of the Manizales) shot at the F-31 in a desperate gesture of panic or anger, when he saw the plane coming onwards», suggesting that the bullet had made impact on the plane running through the fuselage, going to incrust in Samper Mendoza's head by the lower maxillary bone. Because of this the F-31 would have abruptly fallen in the middle of the ascending operation.

In 1991 appeared in Bogota —Colombia— a new release of the book Carlos Gardel, su vida y sus canciones by Jaime Rico Salazar who worked revising «the archives written by the Commission in charge of investigating the accident. Anyhow they are very poor since they are limited to analyzing what happened that day at the airport and they do not go out from there to find out what happened previously out of the place of the tragedy». Basically he repeats the same events told by Spaini concluding that Samper «had no right based on a personal reason, to make the risky maneuver which resulted in the loss of so many lives».

After so many years it is not possible to precisely elucidate the truth of what happened but, according to the way in which the tragedy happened it turns out possible the theory about the rivalry between the two companies and their pilots. The technical expert conclusion signed by the doctors Francisco Rodríguez Moya, Neftalí Sierra and Epifanio Montoya appointed by the Head of Security in Medellín, Dr. J. Antonio Rico, evidenced that the route followed by the F-31 was of a «surprising continuity» especially for the trace of the left landing wheel which can be described as «a perfect geometric stroke». The engine described a 30º sustained parable towards the Manizales plane that was stopped in front of the SCADTA´s hangars. They neither found traces of zigzagging which indicated an intention for correcting the direction, nor tracks of braking. «On the contrary, 180 meters before the crash place, the track of the right wheel disappeared to reappear 120 meters from the place of the collision. It is faded again but farther on the central track of the back wheel reappears, as if at the time of takeoff it would have pressed the latter strongly against the ground».

In 1984 in Medellín Horacio Ferrer interviewed Antonio Henao Gaviria, the only journalist present in SACO's place the afternoon of June 24, 1935. Gaviria was 81 years old at the time of the interview and had a prodigious sharp mind. He remembered that 200 meters after starting its take-off run the F-31 directly veered towards the Manizales plane without taking off.

The crash of the planes, he said, was like an atomic bomb that darkened the whole airport. With an extinguisher of the Firemen battalion he sprinkled José Plaja's aflame body so saving his life. This gave birth to an everlasting friendship. In one of the letters that he periodically sent to him, Plaja totally denied the existence of a dispute on board.

When wondering about the causes of the accident, Gaviria said: «Once Samper, at the Girardó battalion, in the wee small hours of the morning after some night of fun, told me that the German pilot Ulrich Thom had flown above him with a monoclub airplane he had, as a challenge and that he was waiting for a chance to avenge himself some day... I think that he (Samper) tried to get out of the runway and fly above him but as he was not much skilled in three-engine crafts because he had always driven small planes, he failed...»

Similar statements by don Antonio Henao Gaviria included Rodolfo Omar Zatti in his book Gardel 544 días finales (Corregidor 1992, page 145): «A few days before, Thom had taken the archbishop of Ibagué, capital of Tolima, in his plane and when passing above Samper´s plane, he made a gesture as saying “look at what I am carrying; let's see what you can carry”... I think that Samper wanted to return him the joke of previous days and in full take-off run of his aircraft he made it veer toward the place where his rival was to show him the human cargo he was taking on board, but due to the nearness of the other craft and his little expertise with this kind of plane with cargo, he was unable to take off and a horrible collision took place at 2:56 PM on June 24, 1935».

Testimonies and experts' opinions seem to coincide: Samper deviated the F-31 out of the runway, towards the Manizales craft. Everything makes us think of a daring imprudence more than of an act of God.

José Plaja, Carlos Gardel's secretary during the tour and one of the three survivors of the sinister, added another fact almost ignored in all the writings made about Medellín. On Wednesday, June 25, 1969 —after 24 years of silence— he accepted to be interviewed by the journalist Jaime Sureda Prat of Europa Press, this was published in the newspaper La Verdad of Murcia, Spain.

Plaja lived then in a little town of Ampurdán de Gerona, he was 69 and the fingers of his both hands were amputated because of the fire. «I was in charge of hiring an airplane for our trip from Bogota to Cali so I talked to captain Mollison (NdA: Plaja mentions a certain Morrison as the pilot who drove the F-31 from Bogota to Medellín. However the thee-engine plane was driven by the American pilot Stanley Harvey. In 1981 Plaja allowed to be interviewed by Esteban Peicovich for the magazine Interviu in which he, basically, tells us the same events) a great pilot that had put together an enterprise with a certain Samper, a very rich man who had bought two planes with his own money... The night of the departure Mollison told me that if we took off early in the morning, we would be able to make a non-stop flight to Cali because we could cross the Andes without fog and would not have to fly very high, what would allow us to fully fill the gasoline tanks. But we took off at ten in the morning and with the tanks half-filled, what forced us to stop in Medellín to re-fill... The night before there was a hand of poker which lasted very long... We took off late because of the round of poker and the pilot had to change his plan, to fill the tanks with less gasoline because there was already thick fog and we had then to land in Medellín...»

Death generally puts an end to passions, but not in Gardel's case. The tragedy of June originated harsh arguments that still last after sixty-five years, as if we would try to deny all explanation that justifies what is unacceptable.

The authorities of Colombia still affirm that fate was responsible that afternoon in Medellín, but very few are resigned to believe in that. Gardel even dead, goes on cultivating mysteries.

The history of the world is full of events that were originated by mad, hallucinated, visionary, imprudent and neurotic people. «Had Miltiades run away in Marathon and Charles Martel in Poitiers, western civilization would have been different. Everything would have resulted different if Christ had denied his doctrine in front of Pilate» (NdA: Sigmund Freud: The President Thomas W. Wilson. Psychological Portrait). Maybe the history of popular art would have been different had not existed that hand of poker and Samper Mendoza's genial imprudence.

Originally published in the Club de Tango magazine, Nº 14, Buenos Aires, May-June 1995.