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.