LAS VEGAS -- Ground searchers today sighted what they believed to be the wreckage of a TWA plane carrying Carole Lombard, fun-loving, beautiful blonde film actress, and 21 other persons, including 15 officers and men of the army's ferry command. What apparently was the wreckage could be seen halfway up precipitous Table Rock mountain at the southern end of the Charleston range, some 35 miles from Las Vegas. The location was the same as that at which flames were seen last night at the time the plane was believed to have crashed.
Broken pine trees could be seen, and what looked like the charred fuselage. Patchy snow and areas of bare rock formed a pattern in which it was impossible to detect details from a distance.
Elevation of the spot where the wreck was believed seen was about 8000 feet. Massive Table Rock mountain forms a steep precipice at that point and it appeared the plane might have crashed squarely into it.
Several search parties toiled toward the scene, some on horses and some afoot. Clark Gable, Miss Lombard's husband, started with one party, but was forced to turn back when no more horses could be obtained.
The area Is extremely rough. Members of first foot searching parties came back, unsuccessful, with their shoes cut to ribbons.
A ground base was set up at a point where tho range rises sharply from the sagebrush-covered desert.
Searching parties included sheriff's officers, newspapermen, Indian trail experts and miners. Horsemen made the best progress, but even they feared they might not be able to reach the scene until late today.
It was learned the plane had intended to land at Boulder City for fuel last night, but could not halt there because of unfavorable conditions. It headed back for Las Vegas and disappeared.
Gable went out with the second party, traveling along a bumpy dirt road to the jumping-off place where searchers had to leave their cars for horses. He was unable to go further, however, because additional horses were not available, and was persuaded to return to El Rancho Vegas.
The actor, grief-stricken but still clinging to hope that passengers might be found alive, returned under protest. He had no sleep last night. Unshaven, his eyes ringed with sleeplessness and anxiety, Gable awaited news from the mounted searchers.
They included Deputy Sheriff Glenn Jones, Coroner Jack Larry, Tweed Wilson, a 75-year-old Indian; newspaper man John Cahlan, Jock Downs and others familiar with the area.
The army air corps ferry command at Long Beach said the army fliers aboard tho crashed luxury liner were members of a ferry command returning to the Pacific coast for new assignments. TWA said they boarded the plane at Albuquerque, where four other passengers were put off to make room for the pilots.
The 21-passenger Douglas Sky Club made a brief stop at Las Vegas and took off at 7:07 p.m. About 7:30 p.m. workers at the Blue Diamond mine saw a flare and heard an explosion.
A few minutes later, Pilot Art Cheney of Western Air Lines reported he saw a large fire on Table Mountain, about 40-miles southwest of Las Vegas.
"It's a TWA plane and I can't find any signs of life," Cheney radioed. He said he turned on his landing lights in an effort to discover whether anyone was moving about tho wreckage.
The plane crashed more than 8000 feet up Table Mountain in the rugged Charleston range. The ground is covered with several inches of snow.
Doctors in two ambulances and searchers in 25 automobiles left Las Vegas for the scene.
Superintendent W. T. McMillan of the Blue Diamond mine said the searchers would have to use packhorses for nearly 20 miles of the journey into the steep, rugged Charleston range, which rises from the Mojave desert floor.
Gable, who had been waiting at Lockheed Air Terminal, Burbank, to welcome Carole home, learned instead of the crash. He chartered an airplane to fly to Las Vegas from Los Angeles.
Miss Lombard, 32, was returning from Indianapolis with her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth K. Peters, and Otto Winkler, publicity man for Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer studio. She had gone there to help sell defense bonds. Gable is chairman of the actors committee which assigns motion picture stars to assist the United States treasury in bond sales over the country.
Miss Lombard, born In Fort Wayne, Ind., had volunteered for the trip to her home state. She sold $2,000,000 worth in one day, Thursday.
Hollywood heard that Winkler preferred to make the trip by train, hut that the actress insisted upon an airplane trip. They tossed a coin. Miss Lombard won -- and presumably lost her life.
Winkler, a former Los Angeles newspaperman, handled Gable's publicity and was understood to have made the trip at the actor's request.
Captain Wayne Williams, a veteran T. W. A. pilot, was at the controls. T. W. A. said he gave no hint of trouble; that the only message received from him after he left Albuquerque was a routine report that he was off. Visibility and weather conditions in the area were reported good.
T. W. A. flew a party to Las Vegas shortly after learning of the crash.
The Civil Aeronautics board sent two inspectors, Perry Hodgens and Warren Carey, and Chief Inspector Prank Caldwell of the accident investigating division followed today.
Accompanying Gable in his chartered plane were Mrs. Winkler, Eddie Mannix, vice-president of M.-G.-M.; Howard Stricking, M.- G.-M. publicity chief; Don McElwaine and Ralph Wheelwright, M.-G.-M. publicity men.
Dan Yanlsh, watchman at the Blue Diamond mine, said he probably was the first person to see the crash.
"I was watching the plane go over our diggings. It was a beautiful night, clear as a bell. It hardly seemed minutes before the plane faded away over the Charleston range when I saw a flash and then big tongues of flames raging skyward. The place Is covered with snow and It glistened white and sparkling from the red glare."
T. W. A, said its planes had flown 18,000,000 miles-187,000,000 passenger miles-since its last fatal crash.
Captain Williams, 41, had a record of 12,000 hours and 1,500,000 miles in the air. He learned to fly in the Army Air Corps and joined T. W. A. in 1931.
Co-pilot Morgan Gillette, 25, was born in Burlington, Vt., and joined T. W. A. in September, 1940. Hostess Alice Getz, also 25, was a native of Kewanee, Ill.