The forgotten crash

Remote memorial to people who died in Stephenville air tragedy in disrepair, group says

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on October 3, 2012

There are numerous fallen crosses on top of a remote mountain near Stephenville, and some aviation buffs are hoping to attract attention to the forgotten memorial.

“It’s a shame that this is where these people are resting, but there’s nothing being done to it,” says Lisa Daly, an archeologist and member of the Historic Aviation Committee, which researches the early days of flight in the province.

“Every few decades it gets fixed up and (then) abandoned.”

The markers commemorate the people onboard an American Overseas Airlines DC-4 that crashed into Hare Mountain minutes after taking off from Stephenville 66 years ago today.

Thirty-nine people were killed — half of them women and children, the wives and kids of American soldiers stationed in Germany.

The youngest child was three months of age, the oldest was 11.

The plane, known as Flag Ship New England, left about 3:30 a.m. and was en route to Berlin.

It was the worst commercial aviation tragedy in history at the time.

“This was a devastating crash,” says Dave Hebbard, who is also a member of the group. “You’re talking about a sheer granite wall, and about a 160-mile-an-hour impact straight in.”

Hare Mountain has been known as Crash Mountain ever since, although Hebbard maintains few people remember why.

He trekked to the site a year ago, and over the winter started probing deeper into the tragedy.

In early August, he, Daly and Shannon Green returned to the site and located the plane’s wreckage on a steep incline.

“It’s all blown to hell,” Hebbard says. “It’s all pieces. It exploded and burned for nine hours, flowing down the hill.”

 

The photographer and videographer went back again last month to shoot high-definition video for a documentary about the crash.

On that trip, he located a mass grave on the slope below the point of impact.

While the airline erected the markers and a monument on top of the mountain, Hebbard says a grave was dug on the incline below and rock was blasted over the plane and the bodies.

“That was how they buried everybody, basically,” he says.

Don Cormier of nearby Noel’s Pond has been the guide on each of the lengthy and challenging hikes to the site.

Besides knowing the terrain as a hunter and hiker, Cormier is connected to the crash because his father helped the Newfoundland Rangers respond to the tragedy.

“He never talked about it very much,” Cormier says. “When he’d get drinking, he’d talk about the crash site, but he wouldn’t say what they found, bodywise or anything like that. He’s just said it was a mess. ... If they found anything, (they’d) turn it into the Rangers, and if they found any body parts, just put it in one pile. That was their duties.”

Cormier says he’d been on Crash Hill skiing over the years, but had never been to where the plane struck.

He believes there must be a reason why they were able to locate the plane now.

“After all these years, I don’t know how to explain it,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s spiritual or not, but there must be a reason, there must be unrest or something, because that site should have been looked after.”

The Historic Aviation Committee wants to see it maintained from now on.

To its knowledge, there hasn’t been any kind of upkeep since the 1980s, when children of a crash victim flew to the site and re-erected fallen crosses.

Ideally, Daly says, they want it looked after like a site outside Gander where a Sabena DC-4 crashed and killed 27 in September 1946, just weeks before the Stephenville tragedy.

“It would be nice to fix it up, and I don’t know if we can find some way to arrange it the same way the Sabena (site) gets cared for,” says Daly.

Adds Hebbard, “It doesn’t seem right to me. They should be recognized in some way.”

The committee had an archeological permit and collected some artifacts at the site, including a woman’s shoe, a navigational tool and the co-pilot’s control panel.

The items are being preserved in a Memorial University lab.

Daly is taking steps to have the site designated as a provincial archeological site. That will see it protected by the Historic Resources Act.

“But that’s not a huge issue because it is a difficult hike,” she says, “and anyone looking to go there … I would highly discourage, because it’s difficult. … On the site itself you’ve got all this loose rock that sometimes you’d step and a rock just starts falling and keeps going, and it’s a little terrifying.”

Hebbard hopes to have the documentary completed within a year. He’s collected most of his footage and has interviewed whoever he could find with a knowledge of the crash, including Cormier and Tony White, whose father also helped the Rangers.

“It’s 66 years ago,” Hebbard says. “Everybody is gone.”

 

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @SteveBartlett_