Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maine’s Two Worst Air Disasters Occurred on the Same Day - New Dispatches from Maine

Photo by Mario Sirabella
While doing research on a novel set in the remote northwestern corner of Maine near the New Hampshire and Canadian borders, I came across a story of a B-17 bomber that crashed on Deer Mountain, in the far northern margins of this region, on July 11, 1944.  The accident still stands as the second worst airplane disaster in Maine history, occurring on the very same day as the worst air crash, when a Douglas A-26 Invader bomber went down in dense fog, plowing into a government-owned trailer park near Long Creek in South Portland, killing the two-man crew and 17 on the ground.
The Deer Mountain crash, which will eventually figure into my novel, occurred in a remote section of the Bowmantown township east of Parmachenee Lake in the Montagne Blanche.  The B-17 bomber was part of Combat Group I, Ard 6-30 Provisional Group, and was being transported by its full crew of ten, all ranging in ages 20-27, from Kearney Army Air Field in central Nebraska to Dow Army Air Field (today Bangor International Airport) here in Maine.  From there it would have continued to Gander, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland before reaching Prestwick, Scotland.  It was slated to enter active service with the 8th US Army Air Force based in the English Midlands for operations in the European Theater following the D-Day invasion a month earlier.  Other flights of bombers and fighters were being ferried from airfields farther north in Maine, at Houlton and at Presque Isle. 

After departing its base in Nebraska, the aircraft encountered worsening weather and turbulence as it flew over the Appalachians of eastern Pennsylvania, and then over the  Catskills of upstate New York and the Green Mountains of central Vermont.  Shortly before 11am on July 11, while flying near Albany, New York some 60 miles north of its planned route, the crew established radio contact with Grenier Field (now the Boston-Manchester Regional Airport) in New Hampshire which recommended that the aircraft proceed directly to Dow Field.  Instead, it apparently got lost after changing course to avoid severe storms farther south and continued its flight path over the Green Mountains and into the White Mountains in far northern New Hampshire.  Grenier was the last radio contact with the aircraft.

Believing they were somewhere over the coastal plain of southern Maine, the pilot took his plane to a lower altitude to get below the weather and attempt to locate his position.  Witnesses claimed the bomber had circled the Rangeley area much farther to the north for an hour and a half before disappearing into the clouds.  At approximately 1:30pm the B-17 crashed into Deer Mountain about 500 feet below the 3,500-foot summit and wreckage was spread over an area 30 to 200 feet wide and 800 feet long.

Another bomber participating in a joint US-Canadian search effort discovered the crash site two days later, on July 13, and personnel from Dow Field and the air field at Presque Isle were immediately sent to the crash site to investigate the accident.  Investigators noted that severe thunderstorms were in the area and heavy clouds obscured the mountain at the time of the crash.   The bodies of the crew were removed to Bangor and returned to their families and later a bulldozer was brought in to salvage certain items from the crash site before burying the remaining wreckage which is still resting on the side of the mountain over 70 years later.

In 1999 efforts began to erect a memorial to the lost crew who never made it to the battlefields of Europe.  Money was raised and eventually a large memorial was transported on local logging roads to the very remote crash site.  The memorial was finally dedicated in July 2000, on the 56th anniversary of the tragic crash.

The second crash on July 11, 1944 - still the worst air disaster in Maine history - occurred near the Portland airport, some 125 miles south of the remote Deer Mountain crash site.  On that afternoon another Army bomber, this one an A-26B-5 Invader on a training flight from Louisiana and apparently attempting to land at the airport, appeared briefly out of the fog at an estimated altitude of 200 feet.  Climbing several hundred feet it disappeared again into the fog.  Shortly thereafter there was a loud explosion and flames were seen beyond the runway near Long Creek, a small tidal stream flowing into the Fore River near the Portland harbor.  Witnesses say the aircraft struck the ground and cartwheeled adjacent to the Westbrook Trailer Camp, a government housing facility for workers at the nearby New England Shipbuilding Corporation yards in South Portland and their families.  The two man crew was killed and the burning wreckage destroyed sixteen trailers and damaged a dozen others while taking the lives of 17 people on the ground, mostly all of them women and young children who could not escape the firestorm, and injuring many others.  The exact cause of the accident is still unknown.

What was left of the trailer camp no longer exists in what is today South Portland’s Red Bank neighborhood and Olde English Village along Westbrook Street near the Portland International Jetport.  A memorial to the Long Creek disaster was erected in 2010 in a small park near the crash site. 

How strange that two bombers apparently disoriented by inclement weather conditions would crash so close on the same day.

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