Remembrance Program Planned to Mark Fiftieth Anniversary of Elkton Plane Crash.

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Singerly Fire Company crews work on recovery the next morning. Rooke firefighter Henry Schaffer is on the right and Chief Spec Slaughter is on the left.

Many in Cecil sighed with relief as 1963, an eventful year full of ups and downs, came to an end.  As people reflected on those events of nearly fifty years ago, they recalled the opening of the modern expressway, President John F. Kennedy’s visit, and the unbelievable news a few days later.  An assassin’s bullet had struck the youthful president down in Dallas.  So as the county grieved and the calendar turned on that unforgettable November they surely thought it couldn’t get any worse.

They were wrong for on a terrible December night Pan-American World Airways Flight 214 exploded, plunging into a field at the edge of Elkton.  On that cold, rainy Sunday, as lightning periodically illuminated the cornfield eighty-one people perished when the big plane broke apart in flight and debris rained down on mostly open land.  Hours later, as rescuers started the grim task of combing the wreckage zone, a county firefighter suddenly collapsed and died.

This horrifying disaster, the worst in Cecil County history, is something that is seared into the collective memory of the community and friends and relatives of victims.  People involved in this tragedy will never forget the unusual December thunderstorm and how the fiery blast in the stormy sky suddenly illuminated the town, momentarily turning December darkness into daylight.  Fear, anxiety, and concern swept across the unnerved community as sirens filled the night air with emergency units rushing toward Delancy Road to provide aid to the injured.  It was soon obvious to first responders that the accident wasn’t survivable.

Next year on Sunday, Dec 8th, 2013, the Historical Society of Cecil County will hold a remembrance program, as it will be fifty years since that tragedy changed so many lives.  To help with the program our volunteers have been busy creating a remembrance archive to add to our holdings.  A major part of this involves interviewing people, and we recently taped Chief Thomas N. McIntire, Jr (retired).  The Elkton police chief and assistant fire chief vividly recalled answering the alarm, as he drove the first fire engine out toward the state line. Riding in the command seat Chief Spec Slaughter had his hands full direting the mobilization of the massive, county-wide emergency response that included units from Delaware.  We have also interviewed Lt. Don Hash (MSP retired), the first police officer to arrive on the scene and will continue with  recordings throughout 2013.

The remembrance program will take place at the Historical Society on Sunday, Afternoon, Dec. 8th, 2013.  The Rev. Hubert Jicha and retired school superintendent Henry Schaffer will facilitate the program.  Henry, a 16-year-old at the time of the crash, was one of the first responders.  The afternoon will include the sharing of memories, outtakes from the oral history collection and displays of material from our Cecil County history and genealogy library.  We have newspapers, the emergency radio communication tape created as Rosemary Culley dispatched the emergency, many photographs, and television news broadcasts.

Chief McIntire twice met with the pilot’s son, Chris Knuth.  His father George F. Knuth piloted the airliner circling in a holding pattern. waiting for clearance to land in Philadelphia, while a storm front passed over the Delaware Valley.   Chris first called the Society back in 1996, saying he wanted to visit the area so we were pleased to help him while he was here.  At the time, the Society arranged for Chris to meet with the chief and Rosemary Culley, the dispatcher.  He met with this duo once again in 2006 as we helped a British video firm produce a documentary about the subject.

We are still working on plans but watch our newsletter, The Inkwell, and our blog for details as we put together this remembrance.  We will keep readers informed as details develop.

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Chief McIntire (retired), center and Chris Knuth, right, son of the Pan American pilot look over the scene of the crash on Delancy Road while documentarians record the scene.

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15 responses to “Remembrance Program Planned to Mark Fiftieth Anniversary of Elkton Plane Crash.

  1. It would be interesting to get a copy of the British documentary.

  2. John & Alicia, we have a copy at the Historical Society. It was done for one of the cable broadcast outlets (the science or history channel or something like that) and the producers spent a lot of time here capturing tape. Unfortunately the final product cut the Elkton time as they wanted to focus more on the shuttle Columbia’s explosion. As I recall the final product just had a couple of minutes of time,

  3. You might want to talk with Earl Hines. He has told me that he ran the wiring of phone lines at the crash site.

  4. The audio recording of Rosemary Culley is fascinating. She remained so calm in a stressful situation. She was truly remarkable.
    This event is still remembered by so many people… even me, although I was only 3, almost 4 years old.

  5. Very interesting read! I’m happy to hear that this tragic event hasn’t been completely forgotten. My grandparents were on that plane and my mom and Uncle were only 12 and 14 at the time when they lost both of their parents. What a big impact this incident has had on my entire family. Although we live all over the US now, I think several of us will consider coming for the program on Dec. 8, 2013. Is there a way to share contact information so we can be sure to be kept in the loop for planning details etc? Thank you, Tiffany

  6. Tiffany it was good to hear from you. We’d be so pleased to have members of your family at the remembrance program on Dec. 8th. We are hearing from other family members too. As we develop the plans, we’ll keep the blog updated so that’s one good to way to stay informed. By entering an email address in the email subscription block at the top of the form, it’ll notify you when posts are put up. Also I’ll email you privately and give you one of our internal email adderesses.

  7. I witnessed this crash (from afar) while driving on Kirkwood Highway toward Newark, Delaware. I would like to be kept informed about the Remembrance Program on December 8, 2013, and I expect to attend.

    • John, thanks for sharing this info. We’ll keep the blog updated as we develop the program and get closer to the date of the remembrance program. Keep an eye on it for additional updates. Also on the top right of the blog, there’s a form, which will have the blog send you emails as new posts are added, if that is easier for you..

      • John K. Landis

        Mike, in thinking about the 50th anniversary, I decided to do three pastel illustrations attempting to capture the sequence of what I saw from my car window while driving to the University of Delaware (from the north) that tragic night. I have the drawings digitized now and can send them to you if you wish. Although in early December every year, the event passes through my memory, I did not recall the exact date the way I specifically remember 9/11 or 11/22. However, just as with those two infamous dates, the event will forever be etched in my mind… perhaps even more so because I witnessed it as it was happening, although from afar. While news photos were taken after the crash, I don’t suppose anyone photographed those terrible seconds during which the plane was hit by lightning, exploded, and then dropped to the ground. My illustrations have tried to capture those three events as I remember them. Let me know if you want me to email them as attachments.

      • John thanks so much for doing this. We do hope you’ll attend the remembrance program. It will be on the date of the incident, Dec. 8 so it will have happened a half-century earlier. We’d very pleased to see your work and will send a direct email. We have a lot of photographs of the debris field soon after the crash occurred as photographers from the local papers got out there and in next day there are many. There is also some old newsreel footage which we have digitized and will use during the program. Back when this happened there were just a few homes out there and one of them Mr. Kitchen was a photographer. He grabbed his camera and rushed outside. I talk to his soon about that occasionally, and he said they were borrowed and returned. I wonder if some of those we have weren’t turned over to the investigators and some of his work made it back here, via those agencies. In a few the fire from the crash is still burning so it couldn’t have been too many hours after the plane went down. Again Thanks so much and we’ll email you shortly.

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