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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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)

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.

The witnesses to those crucial seconds included an airport mechanic, Guy Walker. He said the plane came in going directly north over the hangar and administration building and circled the field in a tight bank.

"The fog was rolling in at the south end of the field and the plane ran right into it. That was the last we saw of the ship, " Walker said. "Fifteen seconds later, we heard the motors stop and almost simultaneously we saw flames shoot 100 feet into the air."

The fog was like a curtain separating the airport from the trailer park. But Russell's family could imagine the horror that lay on the other side. Alma Russell fainted when the sound of the explosion reached her.

On the Redbank side of the curtain, Philip G. Roberts, then 15, was going home for supper after swimming with friends at Clark's Pond.

"Somebody said, `Boy, there's a low one.' Then, boom, " Roberts said.

He dashed to his home on MacArthur Circle and got his Brownie box camera. He took some of the first pictures of the crash, capturing the flames and the thick black columns of smoke.

His sister, Marietta Burrows, says it reminded her of the scenes on war picture cards that came with bubblegum at the time.

Witnesses said the plane "swung around in an arc to escape the administration building and in about 15 seconds a ripping crash resounded and flickering tongues of fire blazed high in the air, " according to an account in the Evening Express. "The plane struck an embankment and bounced and pitched over rough soil."

Directly in its path was Hazel Little's trailer.

Hannan, the mother's helper who was starting supper, said she was alerted to the crash by "an awful noise."

"I was thrown onto the floor with fire all around me, " Hannan said from her hospital bed. "I saw the floor caving in around me and I could see down through right under the trailer as I lay there. I got up and grabbed Jimmie (James Little, 4) in my arms and ran out and put him down.

"I saw the little girl (Nancy Little, about 2) outside with her clothing afire. I ripped off her dress and beat out the fire from her other clothes with my hands. Her burned skin came off on my arm."

Hannan said Rita Robertson, the visiting neighbor, "was crying for her baby. We found him at the hospital."

Hazel Little died in the crash. Her two children, Nancy and James, died the next day at Maine General Hospital, now called Maine Medical Center.

Hannan survived with facial burns. But Rita Robertson's 10-month-old son, George J. Robertson Jr., would die of his injuries that evening. Rita died the next day.

Rita's 3-year-old girl, Penny, had arm burns but survived. She wonders today how she and her father managed to escape. He could never bring himself to talk to her about the events.

Victims trapped, helpless

The family of Charles Mitchell, a neighbor who help pull Nancy Little from the fire, was much more fortunate.

Mitchell had been knocked from his trailer when a wing of the plane hit the home. He was able to run back in and carry out his 3-year-old son, Edward. His wife, who saw the crash while standing at the back door, rescued their 18-month-old son, James.

"I saw the wing strike first, " she said afterward, "and then there was a terrific explosion and burst of flame that stunned me for a moment."

One of the twin engines of the plane ripped through a trailer, barely missing a woman and two children. The engine remained airborne for another 200 feet and tore through the corner of a second trailer 75 yards from where the plane struck. The engine was found partly buried in the ground in front of a third trailer.

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