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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Tragedy in the Sky

At 2:38 p.m. on March 17, 1960, Northwest Airlines Flight 710 departed Chicago’s Midway Airport with 57 passengers and six crew members aboard, nonstop for Miami. At 3:13 p.m., Flight 710 routinely reported in over Scotland, Indiana. A short time later, at 3:25 p.m., something went terribly wrong and the four-engine turboprop Lockheed L-118 Electra passenger plane disintegrated in midair. One wing separated from the fuselage and the crippled plane plummeted to earth and cratered into a field about 10 miles east of Tell City, Indiana, barely missing a nearby farmhouse.

That evening my father, the assistant postmaster in Tell City, received a telephone call at home. The plane was carrying sacks of mail and he was directed to go to the scene to recover any letters and packages.

I had not seen or heard anything of the crash. All I knew that evening was what my father told us — there had been a horrible tragedy and he was going to look for mail among the wreckage. I was 8 years old at the time and the whole incident frightened me.

A few days after the crash, we piled into the car and drove to the site. I peered through the car window at the still-smoldering crater in the middle of a field, a sickly grey pall lingering over the crater and an odd aviation fuel smell permeating the air. The Electra slammed into the ground with such force it dug a 25-foot deep crater and then accordioned in on itself. All I saw were scattered pieces of metal debris.

Although the fuselage impacted in one small area, additional wreckage was scattered for miles among the surrounding hills and corn fields. Tattered pieces of clothing hung in trees, and the dirty snow around the crater was black from flames. To this day it is still the most tragic event I’ve witnessed. I still can see that crater smoking clearly in my mind.

Only 18 bodies were identified; most were unable to be recovered and left in the crater as their final resting place. Remains that could be recovered were placed into eight coffins and interred in Greenwood Cemetery in Tell City. Today, a nine-foot-high Vermont granite monument flanked by four tablets engraved with the names of the victims stands as a memorial in the middle of the now-landscaped field. A concrete circle embraces the original crater, where the bulk of the plane still lies entombed. Fifty-six years later, flowers still occasionally show up on the memorial.

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