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MASON CITY, Iowa - Jim Collison thinks the call came in at about 9:30 a.m.

But it could have been 10 o'clock, he said.

After 50 years, the hands on the clock of memory get a little fuzzy.

The late Thor Jensen, the crusty, no-nonsense city editor of the Globe Gazette, got the call.

"There had been a plane crash," he said. "With fatalities."

Jensen dispatched Collison, the county reporter, and photographer Elwin Musser to the crash scene in Clear Lake.

It was Feb. 3, 1959, a date to be remembered in folklore as "the day the music died."

Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, better known as "The Big Bopper," had performed at the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom the night before.

After the concert, they boarded a private plane at Mason City Municipal Airport to take them to their next gig, in Fargo, N.D.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard, including the pilot, Roger Peterson.

Collison and Musser knew none of this as they headed to the airport when the wreckage was spotted, several hours after the crash.

All they knew was it was bitterly cold and they had a deadline to meet. In those days, the Globe Gazette was an afternoon newspaper, so they had to hustle.

They rode to the crash scene together in Musser's car.

Musser, 89, said when they got there, they found that police had blocked the path to the crash site because the coroner had not yet arrived.

He and Collison stayed in his car to stay warm, and Musser turned on his car radio while he waited. It was then that he learned the three singers had been killed in a plane crash in Iowa. And it all came together for him.

So while Musser and Collison were the first news people on the scene, they were not the first to report it to the rest of the world. The word was already out.

"I had vaguely heard of Buddy Holly, but I was not a fan of that kind of music," Musser said.

When the coroner, Ralph Smiley, came, he and Collison followed him to the crash scene.

He took many photos, including some with Collison in them, notebook in hand, scribbling notes as best he could in the frigid temperatures.

Musser said the men did their jobs as quickly as possible and then quickly headed back to the office.

"I knew we'd be getting phone calls, and we did," Musser said. "I was sending pictures to The Associated Press while I was doing pictures for the Globe. I was one busy paper-hanger that day."

Collison, 75, estimated that he and Musser waited about a half-hour for the coroner to arrive and had to hustle to do their work and get back to the Globe.

"While we were out there, Thor was at the office working the phones. He already had the lead and some of the story written by the time we got back. I filled in the rest with the details. That's why the story that appeared in the paper that day had no byline," Collison said.

Like Musser, he said he didn't know who the victims were until he was at the scene. He does not recall hearing the names on the car radio.

How did he learn their identities? "My practice as a reporter was to ask questions, so I imagine I asked," he said.

One of the investigating sheriff's deputies was Duane Mayfield, a personal friend of Collison's, and he thinks Mayfield may have filled him in.

When Mayfield retired from the sheriff's department, he became an insurance adjuster - and his specialty was investigating airplane crashes, Collison said.

He's amazed at all the attention the plane crash has gotten over the years. "If 50 years ago, somebody had told me this, I would have been very surprised," he said.

"Of course, the loss of human life was tragic, but I was not familiar with the singers or a fan of their music.

"To tell you the truth, about a month before the plane crash, I covered a fatal accident down in Dows on New Year's Eve.

"In my mind, the story I wrote about that fatality, coming as it did on New Year's Eve, was much more interesting and significant."

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