Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Fall of Flight 624

Grave of the unidentified victims of Flight 624
St. Ignatius Cemetery, Centralia
I am going to start this one with a warning: there is a mine fire burning underground in the area of Centralia. Gases seep from the ground and when I have visited the area the dust and ash in the air has irritated my throat. With this being said, I take no responsibility if you choose to visit the area and get injured.

Also, the sight of the plane crash is on private property. Please DO NOT trespass on posted lands.

"Are you sure he's buried here?" Mike asked as the two of us spread out and searched the stones among the freshly cut grass.

"The article I read said he was in the back corner of the cemetery. It is a flat stone and is easily overlooked," I replied. The two of us had been searching the back corner of the cemetery for close to ten minutes, walking over ground we had already searched.

"Are you sure?" Mike asked again. "I really don't see him back here." I had to agree, the man we sought was not in the back corner of the cemetery like the newspaper article described. Maybe I had read it wrong. A strong feeling of disappointment hung in the air as the two of us moved on and checked the other stones in the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery.

I had wandered over to check out some of the older tombstones when Mike called out excitedly, “Hey, I found him!"

Mike was standing in a spot I had just checked, but there, partially hid by day lilies was the stone I sought. We stood in silence as we paid our respects to the man, and to the forty-two others who lost their lives on June 17, 1948.

Even before the fire that killed the mining town of Centralia occurred, Centralia was familiar with death. Alexander Rea, who was the first to exploit the coal buried beneath the town was shot and killed by a group of men later identified as members of the Molly Maguires. Alexander’s story can be found elsewhere on my blog:  Murder of Alexander Rea and Trial of Patrick Hester.

The mining community had known death as the mines claimed the lives of loved ones. Within the mines dangers such as gas and falling rocks had claimed the lives of some of the miners. Sadly many met their deaths trying to provide for their family.

On June 17, 1948, the town was propelled into the national spotlight as tragedy once again struck the town. At 1:41 in the afternoon, United Airlines Flight 624 slammed into the mountain between Centralia and Aristes, killing all forty-three people on board. Thirty-nine passengers and four crew members lost their lives that fateful day.

The flight had been a normal one for the first leg on the journey. However the last routine call to La Guardia Airport happened at 12:27 pm when the plane was cleared to descend to between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. Almost immediately (at 12:31) the pilot radioed in that there had been a fire on board and that the fire extinguishers had been released. In an excited voice, an emergency descent was being declared.

The Douglas DC-6 airplane fleet had just come off a four month grounding due to a major design flaw. The cabin heater intake scoop was positioned too close to one of the fuel tank air vents. If the flight crew allowed the tank to be overfilled, the excess fuel could flow out of the tank vent. The excess fuel could then be sucked into the cabin heater system, igniting the fuel, causing a fire in the forward cargo compartment.

When the fire alarm went off, Captain Warner radioed in that there was a fire in the cargo compartment. He pulled the release on the CO2 and then dropped in altitude in order to depressurize the airplane. Flight 624 was now dropping at a rate of four thousand feet per mile.

While it will never be known what exactly happened in the cockpit that fateful day, but the official report places the probable cause of the crash as a build-up of CO2 in the cockpit. This was due to the failure to open the relief valves, which would have allowed the build-up for carbon dioxide. The final report declared that there had not been a fire in the compartment at all – the warning had been false.

Grave of George Von Sebo
Victim of the Flight 624 crash
International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery
Eventually, the two of them would have passed out, putting the plane in a steady decline towards the ground, rather than descending slightly before leveling out. The plane was moving erratically north and south as it continued to rapidly descend. It is believed that one of the crew regained consciousness to try to pull it back up, but unfortunately it was too late. The plane pulled rapidly up and sharply to the right, but the right wing clipped the 66,000-volt wires of the transformer that supplied power to the Mid-Valley Colliery at Wilburton.

The plane exploded.

The scene of horror is one that I cannot even start of fathom. The newspapers of the time describe it as a scene of carnage with pieces of the plane and body parts strewn over an acre of mountainside. Miners attempted to reach the wreckage in an attempt to search for survivors, but the fire was so intense that they were driven back by the heat.

The task of identifying the dead was nearly impossible. Some were identified while that of others still remains a mystery.

On board the fateful flight was Earl Carroll, a Hollywood night club owner. A native of Pittsburgh, he made a name for himself as a producer of "Vanities." His shows were among the most popular of the age due to the fact that they were the first Broadway shows to have full nudity. Though married, little seems to be known about Earl's wife - he was known to have many women with him and he eventually would settle down with the star of his newly revived Vanities Theater, Beryl Wallace.

In an odd twist of fate, that morning Earl had received a phone call from Maxie Rosenbloom. They were to meet to discuss Rosenbloom's appearance in one of Carroll's upcoming shows. Earl told Rosenbloom that he was tossing a coin: if it was heads he and Beryl would stop in Detroit to talk with him, if it was tails they were going to continue to New York where they could get together. The coin came up as tails - they were heading to New York.

Another odd occurrence happened only a short time before: Earl had changed his will stating if they died at the same time, his desire was to have their bodies cremated and their ashes buried together. Beryl was thrown clear of the wreckage and was easily identified; Earl was only identified by his fingerprints. Their remains would be fully cremated and buried together in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. 

Arcade card featuring
Beryl Wallace
From my personal collection
Also on board was Mrs. Venita Varden Oakie. She was a former Follies girl; the divorced wife of Jack Oakie, a movie comedian. Henry L. Jackson, the men's fashion editor of Collier's Magazine was also on board the plane that day; and so was Parker W. Silzer, the only son of the late Governor George S. Silzer of New Jersey

Of those identified, most were sent home to be buried among relatives. However one of the identified victims was not: George Von Sebo, the head of warehousing and merchandising control division of Devoe and Reynolds, Inc. was buried among the former residents in the IOOF Cemetery overlooking town. Although he was a stranger buried in a strange land, he was not forgotten as locals decorated his grave and people still place flowers on at the grave, remembering him and considering him a part of their community.

As I stood there, the plane crash from so long ago suddenly took a turn in my head. The articles, the statistics, and the reports suddenly had even more meaning. George was no longer a statistic - his tragic death suddenly became real.

George Von Sebo is buried in the IOOF Cemetery in Centralia. St. Ignatius is the big cemetery on the eastern side of Route 61 at the southern edge of town. Directly across from the entrance to St. Ignatius is a dirt road, which is labeled on some maps as Second Street. The cemetery is located along this road roughly one hundred yards from Route 61. Entering the cemetery, there is a paved sidewalk dividing the cemetery - follow the walkway to the back of the cemetery. George's final resting place is on the right along the fence.

I finished paying my respects before we resumed walking the small cemetery, reading the stones of the former residents. Once we had finished, we crossed Route 61 to pay our respects to those unidentified victims buried there. Entering through the gates into St. Ignatius Cemetery, we turned right at the first intersection and then a left at the next. We discovered the marker roughly halfway between that intersection and the next, located a couple feet off the roadway on the left side.

After paying our respects, we left the cemetery in silence, remembering those who perished that fateful day.

A note of interest: I originally posted the article four years ago. Shortly after it was posted, Stacy wrote stating there was another stone for the unidentified located on the grounds of the Tifereth Israel Hebrew Cemetery near Mount Carmel..

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