50 Years Ago

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of September, 1957:

Tragedy struck in many places, including the Vineyard, on Sunday night when a Northeast airliner, bound from the Vineyard to New Bedford, plunged into the North Dartmouth swamps a half-mile from her runway at the municipal airport, carrying ten persons to their death and injuring all others aboard, some of them critically. Twenty-one passengers, two-thirds of them well known summer colonists of the Island, and three crew members were aboard the plane, none escaping painful injury.

Nothing in the memory of living persons has so stricken the city with horror as this first calamity at the municipal airport, nor has anything in recent history called out such an army of people of every status, who appeared on the scene with a sincere desire to be of assistance. For its part, the Vineyard is sadly stricken and shocked, the tragedy involving many summer families and their visitors.

The big plane was en route from Boston to New York, having taken on passengers at Nantucket and the Vineyard. It was an hour or more behind schedule because of poor visibility. Leaving the Vineyard, its next stop was to be the New Bedford airport, and it was in contact with the tower there until a matter of seconds before it crashed. Two men, testing a helicopter at the airport, heard a sound as of thunder, and fearing a plane crash, alarmed the air terminal.

At once the city police, fire department, civil defense and other departments relating to public safety and rescue work, were alerted and started the roll to the airport — fleets of ambulances, police cars, wrecking trucks, and other equipment carrying flood-lights, radio equipment, plasma and first aid equipment. Doctors, nurses, clergymen and rescue workers, assembled in a small army, and their speed and efficiency was little short of phenomenal.

But on their arrival at the airport, the entire system came to a halt. The area where the plane crashed is a forbidding one, a network of black and muddy ponds, marking the headwaters of the Pasquemanset River, with a heavy growth of wood combined with thick underbrush, closely bordering upon the water in all directions.

There are no near habitations, no place for them, in fact, no roads of any description, and the small farms which border this fenny area on three sides, lie at a distance, while the empty area of the airport is on the fourth side. Adding to the difficulty was the hour, close to 9 o’clock in the evening, the sky black with rain clouds, and even the ground obscured by low and dense banks of fog. No one knew where the plane might be, and it was an hour or more before searchers, wading through water and fighting their way among trees and bushes, located the wreck. It was more than double that time before stretchers could reach the plane wreck, because ambulances and other vehicles could not approach nearer than several hundred yards, the river had to be bridged by means of fire-ladders, and the stretchers had to be carried over this long and difficult distance.

An attempt to discover exactly what might have occurred, and which is still under investigation, appeared to indicate that the pilot had flown a direct course for the end of the runway where he was to land. As both he and the co-pilot were both killed, there was no one to offer any explanation. The plane was judged to have been flying too low, striking the tree tops as it banked for the turn to the runway, and plowing a swath through the trees for 600 feet, when it was brought up, splitting in two, and hurling wreckage and bodies, living and dead, over an area of several rods in width.

The scene at the spot, as the rescue crew arrived and went to work, described as unusually heroic, with the rescue workers struggling through the woods and water, in the darkness broken only by feeble flashlight beams or the distant glow of truck headlights. Hundreds of such workers were on the scene, carrying stretchers, plasma and other equipment, and handling the living and the dead. It was nearly 3 o’clock on Monday morning before it was announced by air from the scene that the last of the victims had been removed from the wreckage.

No very clear picture of what occurred has been gained. Survivors were suffering pain and in no condition to talk. Yet it seems quite clear that Nancy Blair, 14-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Blair of the Edgartown summer colony, may well have been the foremost among various heroic figures in the disaster, and that her prompt action in extinguishing a fire saved the lives of all those who have lived to tell the tale. Nancy’s seat, wrenched from its fastenings, and still containing the young girl, was hurled clear of the wreckage as the plane split in two. Hundreds of gallons of gasoline contained in the tanks were sprayed over the area. Seeing a tiny fire started, Nancy extinguished it before it could reach the gasoline, thus preventing even greater horror, as it now seems doubtful that any could have escaped the flames had the gas been ignited.

(Nancy’s mother, also on board the plane, lost her painful struggle for life a few days after the crash. She was 41.)

Compiled by Eulalie Regan