The Elisian and Keller Reactions
The next two cars who came down the track were Ed Elisian in the Westwood Gauge and Tool Special #68 and Keith Andrews in the Car #31 McDaniel Special. Andrews did not appear to slow down at all and barely made it through by going on the outside of Ward which proved it could be done. Elisian slowed down immediately and stopped approximately 100 feet short of Keller by sliding to a stop on the inside of the track on the infield grass. He got out of his car and ran across the track. At the same time Keller got out of his car and ran to Boyd — arriving before Elisian passed by. Elisian ran past Boyd’s car, glancing momentarily toward the car but mainly motioning toward an ambulance, which had been parked on the south side of the footbridge and was already rolling, to head toward the Vukovich car and then continued toward the Vukovich car himself which was a couple hundred feet further down the track just over the fence. He was nearly hit by Pat O’Conner in the Anstead Rotary Special just as he jumped over the fence.
The reasons for Elisian’s actions are interesting to note. The Vukovich phase of the accident happened in seconds and at the time Elisian had just exited the Southeast Turn. Elisian said in a newspaper interview the next day that “I came out of the corner and saw the other cars and knowing Vukie had just passed me I knew it was he who went over the wall and that the car was on fire. I immediately braked my car and went into the infield jumped out and ran over to help my friend Billy.”
The films however do not entirely bear this out. They show that Elisian did go to the inside when he saw what was happening but they also show that Keller spun across the track toward the inside and blocked Elisian’s path. Elisian, when he saw Keller’s car enter his path, went to the infield and spun out. The question raised is this — when did he decide to run to Billy’s aid — before he stopped or after he spun in the infield apparently trying to avoid Keller, possibly killing his engine? Or did he decide to go for the infield on his own and and lost traction on the slippery surface. The films bring up some interesting questions in this regard. See Films.
But when he arrived at the Vukovich car, taking into consideration his relationship with the two-time winner, it was probably more than he could take. He was reported in at least one newspaper to have kept yelling, “I gotta get him….I gotta get him.”
A person who knew Elisian at that time said Elisian ran to the car and tried to “lift it off” and that people had to “grab him and get him away”. According to the source Elisian himself said the car was “too hot to grab”. He also said later doctors had to give Elisian a shot to calm him down and that the car owner was furious that Elisian had pulled over to help — the only driver in the annals of Speedway history who ever pulled off to help another driver. Elisian received a sportsmanship award for stopping and going to help Vukovich. The watch is now in the possession of an Oakland, California collector and friend of Elisian. One news report said that Elisian had to be restrained from “grabbing the melting race car.” There are no photos found which absolutely positively show him at the burning car although in one photo he is shown next to the ambulance that Boyd is being loaded into to.
Photos taken of the car, however, do show possible movement of the car from early on to before it was turned over. It is possible that either Elisian or others tried to move the car. And it physically could have been done. Films show Johnny Boyd’s car being manhandled over the fence to get it off the track. A very interesting fact to note here is that after careful analysis of the photographs it appears that the car was moved between the first photos of the car upside down and in flames to the later photos just prior to it being turned over. This indicates that some person or persons attempted to turn over the car and only moved it some. Could this person have been Ed Elisian? Could it have been rescue personnel? There are no photos of such a scene taking place but there are many reports of Elisian running to the wreck and trying to help.
Keller said he tried to get some people to turn Boyd’s car over but had difficulty. “It seemed like I was under there half a day.” Boyd said in a newspaper interview. The films confirm that Keller helped turn the car over but it did not seem like there was much difficulty in getting help. And it was only a few seconds before they had the car turned over. When the reports on the radio broadcast are timed it appears that Boyd was climbing out of his wrecked car approximately one minute after the accident
Keller did not know at this time what had happened to Vukovich. “I couldn’t say what happened to Vukovich because I was busy trying to get Boyd righted” he said. “I know though I was hit three times” he was quoted in newspaper reports.
Boyd and Elisian were put into separate ambulances and taken to the track hospital. Elisian was said to be suffering from “extreme shock” and Boyd suffered back and shoulder friction burns.
The Aftermath Scene
After coming to rest Vukovich’s machine burst into flames but there is disagreement as to whether the car exploded on impact or some time elapsed after coming to rest. One thing seems certain and that is there was some kind of explosion as the gas filler cap was blown out worse than Parnelli Jones’ car in the 1964 “500”. After careful analysis of one of the accident movies it appears that the gas tank exploded before the car came to rest. The films show an “invisible” fuel fireball erupt from the car before it stopped. The heat and displaced air from the fireball can be seen rustling the leaves and branches of the nearby trees. Steam was coming from the car and there was oil leaking on hot exhaust and engine parts but in one of the films of the car immediately after the car stopped it is difficult to tell if there are actual flames or not. A uniformed Indianapolis City Policeman or possibly a Speedway Policeman was very close to where the car came to a rest. He signaled the ambulance which had just arrived at the scene to get back — possibly an indication of a hot fire. He then surveyed the wreckage, looking down toward the cockpit. The only thing visible was Vukovich’s left hand although at least two press reports stated they could see the entire arm. (Later photos dismiss this). Radio Announcer Jack Shapiro mentioned there was a car burning within 90 seconds after the accident was over.
It may have taken awhile for the rescue personnel to start putting out the fire probably, in part, because the car stopped outside the backstretch fence. There was apparently not any major fire equipment on that particular side of the fence and what fire equipment there was in the infield had to cross the race track . There have been a lot of questions raised over the years about how slow major fire equipment was to respond. It would have been impossible to predict a car would wind up where Vukovich finally stopped and that probably was the reason the fire truck that eventually did respond (a rugged Diamond T fire truck from The Speedway City Fire Dept.) was not stationed close at hand.
Elisian said in newspaper interviews “I don’t know how long it took for them to get the fire apparatus there but it seemed like all day”. In one famous photo taken from the bridge it can be seen that Boyd had already been removed from his car and being loaded in the ambulance and the fire truck was not at the Vukovich car. At the most there were some people with hand held fire extinguishers and there are even indications from news stories they even ran out of fire fighting chemicals before they were able to knock the fire down before the fire truck arrived.
Announcer Shapiro reported one minute and 45 seconds after the accident was over that people were starting to try and put the fire at Vukovich’s car out. It took two minutes to get Boyd out of the car as it had to be turned over. There is a lot of information to be gleaned from the bridge photo in regards to this. By looking at each player it is possible to pin down an estimate of how much time had passed since the accident occurred i.e. Ward walking back, Boyd being put in the ambulance. It is estimated the photo was taken two or three minutes after the accident at the least and the fire truck was not at the Vukovich car. There are films of the fire truck crews who began spraying the wreck with C02 fire retardant later, but in the early stages there are lots of pictures of the car burning with only a few people standing around. The Dynamic movie, in the way it is edited, makes it appear the fire truck was on the scene immediately. They show the activity immediately after the accident, then go directly to a scene showing the fire truck spraying the Vukovich car with heavy fire retardant and then go back to the activity just after the accident. It has been confirmed that the big fire truck did not show up until 2-5 minutes after the accident. Again, one of the problems was because of where the car ended up on the outside there were no fire trucks and precious few hand held extinguishers. Many of those were on the inside of the track as well and had to be brought across the track to reach the car as evidenced by photographs of people running across the track with hand held fire extinguishers..
There was one report, which said “Speedway fireman made a futile attempt to pull Vukovich’s body from the car, but the fire was so intense they had to back away and wait until the flame burned down”. Other articles had similar descriptions. There are no movies found that show this futile attempt but the indication in the pictures that the car was moved sometime between the time it stopped to the time it was turned over is an indication that attempts were made to save the two-time winner. There were countless references in the press reports that said that firemen couldn’t right the car until the flames were extinguished but no photos or movies. In one of the very few color movies available of the car burning the flames at one time appear to be very visible and deep orange and looked extremely hot and were licking at the tires.
In 1955 there was not the immediate and comprehensive medical help at the scene of an accident which injured drivers have available today. Almost all medical care was concentrated at the fully equipped track hospital. In 1955 there were firemen to put out fires, ambulances and ambulance drivers to transport drivers to the hospital and wrecking crews to haul away the cars. However, there was little real medical help until the driver reached the track hospital. When the Vukovich car stopped and people gathered around there was mass confusion. The ambulance crews had nothing to do as yet as well as the wrecking crews. That left the major fire truck and it had not arrived yet and according to reports when it did arrive firemen tried but couldn’t get Vukovich out because of the flames and things looked futile. This might have led to the immediate assumption by those in attendance that Vukovich was dead and beyond help. Had there been medical attention and rescue equipment at the scene like there is today there might have been an emphasis to right the vehicle even if it did look hopeless.
There is also the triage factor in multiple car accidents. While those techniques are much more advanced now, there was undoubtedly a basic triage factor even in those days. The Vukovich scene may have seemed to be the worst element of the accident but to observers he may have seemed hopelessly trapped so the first rescuers may have turned their attention elsewhere, in this case Boyd who was reachable, and thereby let it appear the Vukovich car was left relatively unattended. When Boyd was pulled from his car and put in an ambulance and the rescuers took care of the other drivers they then turned their full attention to the Vukovich car.
Members of the Indiana state Police joined hands and formed a human barrier surrounding the scene creating a buffer zone of approximately 50 feet. Various people — rescue crews, fire crews, maybe even a spectator or two, got as close to the wreck as possible to watch it burn. In one photo rescue workers standing close to the car can be seen putting up blankets and tarps to apparently block the heat of the fire. They were probably also trying to block spectators from viewing the scene and Vukovich’s body in the car which may have been slightly visible because the cockpit was more open on the right hand side. From the front straightaway there was apparently an endless cloud of smoke that was visible rising into the sky.
It was approximately 20 minutes between the time the car stopped and Vukovich was removed. According to the best pictures available for this research, when Vukovich was removed from the car it was not a case of simply turning the car completely over onto its wheels and removing the driver. Members of the Blue & White Service tow truck company tied a large rope to the car and then by pulling on the rope using a cable attached to the tow truck the car lifted up on one side just enough to allow access to the cockpit by various personnel. Some of them appeared to be Speedway medical personnel. In one photo an unidentified person who could have been a medical person can be seen pulling on surgical gloves just prior to the car being pulled up.
In another indication that the judgement was unquestionably that Vukovich was dead while still in the upside down car were the two young men who arrived just prior to the car being pulled up. They were both dressed in suits and bow ties and carried a white sheet that they used to block the view of the cockpit. Judging from their apparel they possibly had been called in from the Conkle Funeral Home since that is where the body was immediately taken.
Vukovich was removed and put on a stretcher. Some reports have him being declared dead at the scene. The stretcher was then taken across the track into the infield where it was put into a vehicle to be transported. There was a gurney ready to receive Vukovich at the car but there was no feasible way to get to the track hospital from that location without going back out onto 16th Street and then back into the track through the tunnel under Turn Two and that fact probably prompted the action to take the body to the infield. However, as it turned out, the body was not taken to the track hospital at all, but directly to the Conkle Funeral Home. That too was possible from the infield by going out through the tunnel at Turn Two and out onto 16th Street.
Reports said grimy fireman were seen shaking their heads while walking back to their stations and word began to spread immediately that Vukie burned to death. In one news story Dale Burgess of Associated Press reported that Vukovich was dead when removed from the cockpit. He reported that Ike Welch of AAA confirmed Vukie’s death. Some witnesses in newspapers said they thought they saw Vukie’s head hit a utility pole but with the speed of the accident this would have been almost impossible to ascertain. There was another report saying the spinning car almost hit a gas pump. Then the writer went on to explain how there was 500 gallons of fuel that could have gone up and put the whole area in flames.
Apparently it seemed to be the consensus at the moment that Vukovich was dead in the cockpit from being burned to death. To some witnesses the accident itself had been terribly violent and most likely would have been fatal but the fire was apparently of such a nature that most witnesses seem to conclude nobody in there could have survived. And this is very well where the original stories about Vukovich burning to death originated since very few people actually did see Vukovich when they removed him from the cockpit. And it certainly would have appeared to anybody there that this is exactly what happened and why he was taken to the Conkle Funeral Home instead of to the track hospital. Witnesses still did not really know at the time what sort of injuries Vukovich could have sustained in the accident. There was damage to the nose and tail of the car that was visible but it was not known to observers that the car had come down cockpit first on the ground with tremendous force. To most witnesses all they saw was a blur and then the car upside down. To them, conceivably, a person could have survived the crash and still be alive in there. But one thing seemed very apparent. It seem to be everybody’s consensus that no one could have survived the fire so the rumors of him burning to death started right then and there. In fact, when the announcement was broadcast by Sid Collins over the radio (which was said to be the official announcement) that Vukovich was “trapped in his car and injured fatally.” Since there was no way to determine his injuries at that point the statement could only be translated as to mean had burned to death. However, later information from the autopsy report and the condition of the car after later examination suggest that Vukie’s burns were not as severe as some people may have surmised by watching the burning car and that Vukie could have actually conceivably survived the fire.
There were two people injured in addition to the Vukovich death — both of which were in the Safety Patrol Jeep. Sgt. Richard Wolf of the Indiana National Guard received a broken collar bone (some reports said it was a broken shoulder) and was transported to Methodist Hospital. The steering wheel of the Jeep was reported to be bent over Wolf’s body and had to be pried out before Wolf could be removed. The aftermath pictures seem to verify this could have happened. Somehow, the Vukovich car hit in the drivers seat area and in addition to other damage bent the top of the steering wheel and the steering wheel shaft down on Wolf’s lap trapping him. The steering shaft broke loose from its mounting and was bent down on Wolf’s lap. It apparently took assistance from rescue personnel to get the wheel off him. It seems almost impossible that the crashing car could have come that close to him, maybe actually coming in contact, without killing him. Lt. Charles D. Mollander, also of the Indiana National Guard received a broken ankle. From reports it is safe to assume he was sitting in the passenger seat but the photos do not fully explain how he could have received a broken ankle as all of the damage appears to be in the windshield and drivers seat area. Motorcycle Patrolman Victor Osborn said he was actually sitting on the Patrol Jeep but somehow was not injured. “I was scared stiff” he said. There were two reports, which said the Safety Jeep was hit with a tire, not by the Vukovich car. The first Boyd tire launched flew over the fence and the tire flew in the general direction of the Jeep but wound up near the Studebaker which was up the track South from the Jeep. This one area has received considerable study. There are several reasons why the tire scenario can possibly be ruled out. First, while the damage to the Jeep was less severe than the Studebaker or the Pickup the damage was almost too severe to be caused by a tire. Second, the tire which would have hit the jeep was found behind the Studebaker but it could have, conceivably, bounced back up the track after striking the jeep. Third, the Jeep was in the path and the Vukovich car was in a mode that it could have clipped the jeep much as it clipped the Studebaker and the pickup. It certainly would have taken a very unique set of circumstances for the Vukovich car to clip the jeep as it would have had to and not kill Wolf. This issue is discussed more later. A couple of reports were of an Army Sergeant injured by a flying wheel. Sid Collins reported on the radio that there were two member of the Safety Patrol and a civilian were injured. While there is no absolute confirmation of this and only one or two references were made, it is possible as two wheels flew over the fence. If there were such an injury to the Army Sergeant it could have been from either tire. Another scenario is that the news reports, while referring to an “Army Sergeant”, may have been talking about Richard Wolf of the Indiana National Guard and mistakenly called him the “Army Sergeant”.
Carl Colip Jr. of 550 North La Salle in Indianapolis was sitting in the parked Studebaker when it was hit. He said it was the “most terrifying thing I have ever seen”. He also said “it happened so fast he didn’t have time to get scared.” The pickup being where it was can be partially explained because it was from the 5th and Meridian Garage. Perhaps it was used as some kind of service vehicle. It had what appeared to be a parking sticker in the window. One fact in which most all people seem to agree on was the speed in which the accident happened. Jess Gilson of the Indianapolis News was stationed near the backstretch bridge and saw Ward lose control but by the time he grabbed a phone Vukovich had already gone over the wall. He even admitted he wasn’t sure of his facts because of the speed of the accident and indeed some of them were wrong. According to Gilson Vukie had scraped the side of the abutment before going over the wall but in reality the car went over before the bridge and did not hit it. Gilson also said he believed Vukovich died in the “wild bouncing ride before the fiery explosion” but offered no real substantiation for the claim except for the violence of the crash which some observers thought was non-survivable. .
Fan Reaction and Unfolding of Events
One of the most important aspects of understanding the accident is getting a feel for how the accident transpired and the subsequent unfolding of events. When the accident happened Announcer Jack Shapiro began immediately to piece together what happened. His first report was that there was “much trouble back here”. He was wrong on some of his initial facts including the number of wheels which came off Boyd’s car but later his reports became increasingly accurate. To Shapiro and the thousands of fans who were on the backstretch (more so than today) they knew all of the other cars involved except for the car that went over the wall. After it became apparent that Vukovich was no longer in the running everybody — fans, announcers, officials, began to think it was Vukovich. And when they started piecing together what happened — the violent flipping and the fire — some of them began to think that Vukovich didn’t make it.
One witness we have contacted said that the backstretch usually had a party atmosphere and that they would pile into the infield at the 5:00 o’clock bomb and head for that area. By the time the race began the party was in full swing. When the accident happened and it started to become apparent what might have happened a huge pall spread over the crowd. The witness also said that there was a retaining fence between the backstretch grandstands and the Speedway to keep people back. After the accident happened the people in the stands ran to the fence which he referred to as the “chicken wire barrier”. It was not built to withstand the crush and people and partially collapsed and the Speedway Safety Patrol guards had to keep the crowd back. The witness went on to say that they didn’t need an official announcement to tell them that Vukovich had died. When people pieced together everything they were seeing it was quite evident that the driver in the car that went over the wall and flipped so violent and landed upside down would not survive, hence the foreboding atmosphere which spread over the crowd.
The accident was shocking to the spectators. According the Craig Stewart film some fans had “about all they could handle”. There were no reports of any fans being injured physically although films do show one fan by the bridge rubbing his arm as the result of an injury and someone else holding a bandage to his head. But as with the Sachs/McDonald accident there must certainly have been some fans who never attended another automobile race in their lives after witnessing such an event.
Jep Cadou, Jr., Sports Editor and writer for The Indianapolis Star, wrote the next day in a particularly graphic description, that he believed Vukie was already dead from “multiple fractures” before the car stopped. He never explained how he came to the conclusion. Did he see something that may have been indicative of fatal injuries? It is very difficult to tell with any reasonable certainty the injuries to a driver in any accident within seconds after it happened. But Firemen and spectators were quoted by Cadou as saying he never had a chance. One unidentified person was quoted in the story as saying “he was pinned under the car and burned to a crisp.” It is safe to say that Cadou and the witnesses thought Vukovich could have easily been killed by the crash and/or the fire. Another news story said Vukovich was “badly burned but not beyond recognition.”
Rex Shaeffer, a witness, had a fairly coherent description of what actually happened According to this report he said definitely Vukovich “burned to death”. He ran to the car, saw the number 4 on the car and knew it was Vukie and said the firemen “couldn’t extinguish the fire.” But again, this conclusion was reached without knowing the injuries to Vukie.
Another witness said he saw Vukie moving in the car before it caught fire. There was only one report of this found. Yet, it seemed to have a life of its own as in discussing the accident with race fans, a lot of them have brought it up. It is safe to say that the stories of Vukovich moving his hand and trying to get out are interesting but probably not true.
The Hand Photos
The so-called hand photos have always been a source of discussion. The fact is, the famous United Press photo of Vukies car upside down and in flames immediately after it came to rest shows what appears to be a hand coming from under the car by the cockpit. In truth, while there was a hand in the photo originally the negative was almost immediately tampered with to remove the hand and all subsequent photos show this. To the untrained and uninformed eye the alteration almost looks like a hand in itself but is only the result of whatever was done to the negative to remove the hand. Knowing what the hand actually did look like makes it possible to look at the photo and reconstruct the image mentally using some knowledge and a little imagination to determine if there was any discernable movement between that early photo and the later and clearer photos. In some ways the hand seems to be a little further out than in the later photos but it is very difficult to tell with any positive certainty because of the negative alteration. Strangely, there are at least one other anomaly in the UP Photo. The Life magazine photo of the hand is a little unusual as it is an extreme blowup up a full car photo and the hand looks somewhat distorted in caparison to the clear pictures. It looks suspiciously similar to the United Press photo but is not the same picture. It could have been taken a few seconds later or earlier by the same photographer as it is almost at the same angle.
The Hospital Scene
According to most reports each driver was brought to the track hospital in separate ambulances. Ward was said to have come in the first ambulance. He had received cuts and bruises Elisian was next and was O.K. but in shock. Boyd was the third victim and he was cut, bruised, burned and shaken. Then came Keller who was only shaken up. Everybody waited for Vukovich to arrive but he never came.
The two National Guardsman injured in the Speedway Patrol Jeep were brought in. One of them was sent downtown to Methodist. There was one other reference to the Army Sergeant who reportedly was hit and slightly injured by one of the tires from Johnny Boyd’s car which flew over the fence.
According to news reports Esther Vukovich was in the Paddock area next to the press area and after the accident happened and realized there was something wrong went to the first aid station in the Garage Area but they would not tell her anything. She then got a ride to the Track Hospital in a car. When she arrived she wanted to go in but was told to wait outside. A short time later Mike Vukovich, Bill’s brother arrived. He reportedly was crying “Oh my God, my God” and collapsed in the arms of Mrs. Lawrence Thompson, whom, with her husband, the Vukovich’s had been staying at their home on W. 15th Street. Esther and Mike were both led into the ward tent and Esther was given a sedative and told to lie down whereby Henry Banks along with Rev. Leo Lindermann, a minister for the drivers, broke the news to her that her husband was dead. She did not collapse as some reports indicated. According to her in a later interview it was the sedative they gave her that kept her lying down for a half hour after she received the news. Later, however Lindermann told a reporter he wasn’t sure she understood the news.
First there were rumors. Then confirmation. And no, the body would not be coming to the Track Hospital. It was sent directly to the Conkle Funeral Home on 16th Street down the street from the Speedway’s main entrance. The scene in the Track Hospital was of Dr. C. B. Bohner, Chief of the Speedway Medical Staff and head nurse Barbara Webb appeared very busy dealing with the situation. Elisian reportedly walked around in a daze. Al Keller’s wife was seen meeting her husband. There was a report that Speedway owner Tony Hulman left the race and came by the hospital where he talked to the injured drivers and officials about the accident . Mrs. Thompson, who was with Mrs. Vukovich in the grandstands when the accident happened, said when Vukovich didn’t come around Esther said “It’s him. Something’s happened. Let’s go.” Mrs. Vukovich woke up about 1/2 hour later and was seen quietly talking to friends and in a state of shock. She then returned to the Thompson home, which was, ironically, directly behind the Conkle Funeral Home which is on 16th Street.
The yellow light was on for 27 minutes and 10 seconds. The announcement of Vukovich’s death was made at 11:50 a.m. Chief Announcer Collins was interviewing violinist Florian Zabach when the word came down that Vukovich was dead. In a cruel twist of fate Collins had just asked Zabach who his favorite driver was. He responded by saying it was Vukovich and he had got to know him personally and enjoyed what he was doing at the Speedway very much. And then Collins, with Zabach standing beside him, made the official announcement that Vukovich was trapped in his car and injured fatally. Collins continued with one significant statement that racing was all the driver’s “life blood”. Other announcers Jack Shapiro, Charlie Brockman and Jim Shelton expressed their sorrow over losing a very, very good friend.