Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Search resumes on Alaska glacier for service members' remains at decades-old plane crash site

Scientists and volunteers tethered in safety gear and ice cleats painstakingly scoured the frozen dirt and ice to see if a glacier had given up any more of its dead before they are swept into a lake and lost to history.

Fifty-two service members died when their airplane smashed into an Alaska mountain more than 60 years ago. The wreckage was rediscovered in 2012, and the somber recovery effort resumed this month.

"It's a patriotic duty that we're doing up here to the family members of the service members that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their nation," said U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Paul Cocker.

The C-124 Globemaster was en route from McChord Air Force Base, Washington, to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage when it vanished Nov. 22, 1952, with 41 passengers and 11 crew members onboard. The wreckage was found soon after, but became buried in snow, forgotten and eventually became part of the glacier at the bottom of Mount Gannett.

In 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter flying over the glacier, about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage, rediscovered the wreckage. Recovery efforts have been undertaken each summer since then, and the remains of 17 service members have so far been identified and returned to families for burial.

The race is now on to recover as many remains as possible before the relatively fast-moving glacier, advancing about a couple hundred meters a year, deposits the wreckage in nearby Inner Lake George.

The search area, which covers about three acres, is now near the toe of the glacier, and the leading edge is constantly being cleaved off and pushed into the lake.

"There is no way to know for sure when all of the remains and wreckage will be lost to the lake, this is why we're dedicated to doing all that we can now," Capt. Anastasia Wasem, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email.

About 12 people, both civilians and active-duty military members, have been at the glacier nearly daily since early June looking for remains and collecting plane wreckage. This year's search effort is scheduled to end Friday. Any remains found will be sent to an armed forces DNA lab in Delaware for identification.

This is the fourth summer on the glacier for Roy Adkins, a civilian working to recover plane wreckage for the military.

Those who have worked the glacier year after year have become accustomed to the changing landscape as the glacier continues to give up wreckage.

"Every year we come out here, there's more and more debris and in different areas," Adkins said. "We've left on a Friday and came back on a Monday, and debris fields have shown up."

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bryan Keese of the Alaska Army National Guard ferries the workers to the glacier on a UH 60 Black Hawk helicopter from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

He was flying a similar helicopter four years ago when his crew chief, Sgt. Roman Bradford, spotted some yellow fabric on Colony Glacier. That turned out to be a life raft from the Globemaster. A subsequent check of the crash database narrowed down the possibilities, and a crew returned to the glacier and found a log book and dog tags, identifying the wreckage from the 1952 Globemaster.

"It's pretty cool to get these folks back home to where they belong," he said of the effort to identify the human remains found on the glacier.

Tonja Anderson-Dell of Tampa, Florida, has researched the crash for years. Her grandfather, then 21-year-old Isaac Anderson died in the crash but his remains weren't among the 17 that have been identified.

She said the military has told families that some remains and debris might have gone into the lake already, and it worries her that the remains of all 52 men won't be found.

If her grandfather's remains are never identified, she does have some solace, thanks to Keese, the helicopter pilot.

He and others collected wreckage shortly after the discovery. Anderson-Dell and other family members traveled to Alaska to view the materials, including a mail box that still had a lock attached. They were also allowed to take metal pieces home; she says hers still smells like diesel fuel.

"For the families that means a lot because some of us many never bring our guy home but we still have a pace of that plane that they died in," said.

Wednesday 24 June 2015


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