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

(Continued from page 3)

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.

Airport officials had called the police ambulance and the fire department as soon as they realized the plane was down.

"The buildings went up like tissue paper, " Francis Demarino, a South Portland fire captain, said at the time. "We couldn't see anything because of the smoke. At first all we could do was play water on the edges of the area."

Many victims were helpless. "Trapped in their homes, the trailer residents . . . were burned to death by flaming gasoline, " the Press Herald reported.

The trailer camp manager said that 16 of the camp's 100 trailers had been destroyed by the fire and explosion. About a dozen others were damaged by flying parts of the plane that were hurled as far as 100 yards.

Ernest "Jim" Darling, now 82, of South Portland, was the first South Portland police officer to reach the scene. "It was a horror show, I tell you, " he said 50 years later.

He was patrolling nearby when he got a call that there had been a crash. "When I got there, it was just a bunch of screaming people and a wall of red flame on the right, " Darling said.

He stood at MacArthur Circle and Westbrook Street and directed traffic. So many sightseers and concerned relatives had rushed to the scene that ambulances were having trouble getting through.

The body of the pilot was not found until 9:30 that evening, Darling said.

"Russell's body was found beneath the flooring of a trailer, " the newspaper reported. "Firemen said he had evidently been blown through a window of the trailer's foundation. Mifflin's body (the flight engineer) was found near an open parachute among the trailers and several hundred feet from where the plane finally came to rest. No one reported seeing anyone parachute from the plane but the two chutes were found opened near the bodies."

Five bodies were so charred that the county medical examiner asked the Portland Evening Express to run detailed descriptions the next day in hope that relatives would recognize them.

By July 14, 18 people were confirmed dead. The 19th and final victim, Shirley May Brown, 34, would die in August of severe burns.

Reports on the number of injured varied, but it appears that at least a dozen were hurt. About 60 people were made homeless, 30 of them children.

Souvenir hunters

Even as survivors wandered around in shock, sightseers were seeking mementos of the crash. "People were souvenir-hunting while they were carrying out bodies, " said Darling, the police officer.

Charles Merrill of South Portland, then 16, was one of those souvenir hunters.

He was working as a salesman at Benoit's Prep Hall at Monument Square in Portland when he heard about the crash on the radio. He rushed out of work, hopped on a Redbank bus and was there within a half hour.

Merrill, now a retired Press Herald photographer, said "it was a nightmarish scene."

He remembers that a woman who lived in the trailer park was on the bus, terrified about what awaited her. The bus took outer Congress Street to Westbrook Street, which extended into Portland before the airport expanded.

"When we got there, " Merrill said, "the police stopped the bus momentarily. She looked out and screamed `Oh, no!' and she took her hands and parted those doors. I went right out behind her."

He wandered around looking for keepsakes. He found small twisted pieces of green metal, parts of the disintegrated plane.

As he was passing a trailer, he saw a hose sticking out. He pulled on it and out came part of the fuel pressure control system for the plane. The device controlled how much fuel went to the left and right engines.

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