April 16, 2010

Tragic memories of deadly crash at Redbank

An Army bomber took the lives of 19 people 50 years ago. Today, the impact and the mystery remain.

By Tess Nacelewicz Staff Writer

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THE VICTIMS
1. Lt. Philip I. Russell, 23, of South Portland. Pilot.
2. S/Sgt. Wallace Mifflin of Seattle, Wash. Flight engineer.
3. (Family:) Clarence S. Hume Jr., 36
4. Edna M. Hume, 33
5. John Hume, 2
6. (Married couple:) Florence Gorham, 34 or 40
7. Gordon T. Gorham, 42 or 44
8. (Family:) Edward A. Gerrish, (also referred to as Alfred E. Gerrish), 31 or 32, shipyard worker from Orono
9. Virginia M. Wescott Gerrish, 26
10. Roberta Gerrish, 7
11. Rose M. Gerrish, 4
12. (Mother and son:) Rita M. Deschaine Robertson, 24
13. George Joseph Robertson, 10 months
14. (Mother and children:) Hazel V. Little, 24
15. James Little, 4
16. Nancy Little, about 2
17. (Mother and daughter:) Jennie Allen, 52
18. Virginia Warren, 32 (mother of two children)
19. Shirley May Brown, 34 (mother of four children)

MAINE'S OTHER DEADLIEST AIR CRASHES
July 11, 1944: A B-17 Flying Fortress crashes between Deer Mountain and Big Buck Mountain in northern Oxford County. All 10 crew members are killed.
Jan. 24, 1963: A B-52 Stratofortress on a routine training mission from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts crashes near the Moosehead Lake region in Greenville. Seven crewmen die, two survive.
March 15, 1973: A P-3B Orion on a routine pilot training mission crashes into the Gulf of Maine, 40 miles south of Brunswick. All five crewmen die.
May 12, 1973: A twin-engine Cessna 402 crashes into Scammon Ridge in Greenville while attempting to land. The plane was en route from Manchester, N.H., to Greenville Airport. Six people are killed.
April 27, 1975: A single-engine Piper Cherokee carrying six construction workers and a pilot crashes off the coast of Boothbay Harbor killing all seven. The plane was en route from Lawrence, Mass., to Saint John, N.B.
March 21, 1978: Two men and their teen-age sons are killed when a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza crashes at the base of Poplar Mountain in the Carrabassett Valley. The crash took place moments after takeoff in snowy and windy conditions.
May 16, 1978: A twin-engine Beechcraft 402 splits apart, bursts into flames and crashes near Trenton. Four people are killed, including Thomas Caruso, president of Bar Harbor airlines, and his son Gary Caruso, vice president of the airline.
Sept. 22, 1978: A P-3 Orion from Brunswick Naval Air Station crashes in woods near Tripp Lake in Poland. All eight crewmen are killed.
Nov. 15, 1978: A single-engine Piper Cherokee crashes on the Rumford-Andover line killing six people en route from Fredricton, N.B., to Williamsport, Pa.
May 30, 1979: Downeast Airlines Flight 46 Crashes en route from Boston to Owls Head, near the Knox County Airport. Seventeen people die, one person survives.
May 28, 1985: A Cessna 172 crashes 1 1/2 miles from the Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg, killing four.
Aug. 25, 1985: A Beechcraft 99 crashes one-half mile from Auburn Municipal Airport. Samantha Smith, the nation's young peace advocate, her father and the two-person crew are among eight people killed.
April 11, 1987: Four men are killed when the Cessna 172 crashes into the backyard of a home in Berwick. The four were on a short trip from Rochester, N.H.
Nov. 19, 1993: An air ambulance from Airmed Skycare Inc. crashes in Casco Bay. Three people are killed and one person survives. The crew was transporting a burn patient from an Ellsworth Hospital to Maine Medical Center when they ran into stormy weather.

In one trailer, Vina Hannan, 18, was about to put a steak on. Hannan was a mother's helper for Hazel V. Little, 24, a shipbuilder whose husband had been drafted. Little was in another room of the trailer as were her two children, James, 4, and Nancy, who was about 2.

Hannan was chatting in Little's kitchen with Rita Robertson, 24, a next-door neighbor. Robertson earlier had prepared her husband's favorite meal, stew, for supper. Her 3-year-old daughter, Ann Marie, whom everyone called "Penny, " was probably playing outside Little's trailer. Robertson's 10-month-old son, George J. Robertson Jr., was home asleep in his crib. Her husband, George J. Robertson, 28, most likely was in the trailer with the baby.

The world of those eight people was about to erupt in flames.

A foggy day for reunion

As Hannan and Robertson talked, a family gathering was taking place at the airport, about three quarters of a mile away on Westbrook Street. Lt. Philip Russell's relatives were waiting to welcome him home.

Russell, whom everybody called "Phee, " was well-known in South Portland. Outgoing and popular, he had played basketball, baseball and football at the high school and was outstanding in all three sports.

He had graduated in 1939, briefly attended the University of Maine, and held a job for a short time before entering the Army Air Forces.

Russell was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1943 and shortly afterward became a flight instructor at Barksdale Field in Louisiana. For the flight that would be his last, Russell had departed the base in an A-26B-5 Invader, a twin-engine attack bomber that was only three months old. The military report on the accident says he was on a long-range training mission.

The bomber usually had a crew of three. But Russell was accompanied by only the flight engineer, Staff Sgt. Wallace Mifflin of Seattle.

Marilyn Lowell, Russell's 12-year-old cousin, was among those waiting for him. Lowell, who now lives in Waldoboro, says she had been told that Russell was on a cross-country trip to test the plane and had gotten permission to visit his family on the way.

Also waiting for Russell at the airport was his wife, Alma Sears Russell, 23, and the couple's 3-month-old baby, Patricia Ann. Alma Sears had been Russell's high school classmate and sweetheart before they married in June 1943.

She had been with her husband at Barksdale Field until just two days before the crash. She seemed to know something about planes.

"We heard Phee's voice on the communication system when the ship circled over the airport . . . and Alma, noticing how low the ship was flying, said the plane was in serious trouble, " a family member said at the time.

The military accident report says the plane's altitude was about 200 feet. The report also says that the ceiling was 500 feet.

A tower spokesman at the time said Russell's plane had arrived at 4:41 p.m. - five minutes earlier than scheduled. In one sense, however, it was six minutes late - the airport had been officially closed at 4:35 p.m. because of fog.

`An awful noise'

It is hard to determine just how foggy it was that overcast afternoon. Witnesses said they could see the plane as it circled the airport. The Army's accident report says visibility was 2 miles in fog.

All accounts agree that a fog bank was rising to the south of the airport. A map included in the accident report shows the fog just over the trailer park.

According to newspaper reports of the crash, the tower told Russell to climb to 1,500 feet when he asked for landing instructions. The operator, who later said he was prepared to reroute the plane to New Hampshire, reported that Russell disappeared into a fog bank and crashed without responding. Russell had been in contact with the control tower for less than a minute.

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