Saturday, 4 July 2015

New mass grave found for victims of NWA Flight 2501

Sixty-five years ago, the worst tragedy in aviation history at that time happened along the shores of Lake Michigan. Northwest Orient Flight 2501 crashed somewhere off the coast of South Haven, killing all 58 souls on board.

Despite efforts by dive crews and sonar experts from (NUMA) National Underwater and Marine Agencyand the (MSRA) Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, no wreckage of the plane has ever been recovered, and no official cause for the crash has ever been determined.

But an interesting discovery by a cemetery sexton has guaranteed that many of the victims lost in this tragedy will never be forgotten.

The plane crash happened June 23, 1950. Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 was departing La Guardia Airport in New York, preparing for a stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before heading to its final destination of Seattle, Washington.

Severe storms were developing over Lake Michigan as Flight 2501 exited the shoreline somewhere between Glenn, Michigan, and South Haven, Michigan.

Sometime after midnight on June 24, 1950, all communication with Flight 2501 was lost, as was with the aircraft itself.

In the days after the crash, the United States Coast Guard began recovery efforts. What they found floating on the water's surface, and washing ashore, was gruesome. No full human bodies were found – only chunks of bodies, along with clothing, suit cases, and some Northwest Airlines seat cushions.

The Korean War began within days after the crash, so the country's attention shifted away from this tragedy.

Recovery efforts would end, and decades would pass, before anybody showed renewed interest in attempting to look for the sunken wreckage.

The 65th anniversary of the crash was last month. Even though no victims were from the state of Michigan, the remains recovered were buried in this state. Until recently, the only known mass burial grave site for victims was at Riverview Cemetery in St. Joseph. That site was found in 2008.

Another mass burial site for 2501 crash victims was discovered in 2015 at Lakeview Cemetery in South Haven. It had gone unrecognized for generations, until two ladies working on a genealogy project happened to stumble upon it.

Mary Ann Frazier and her mother, Beverly Smith, say they were spending some downtime looking up family history in one of the cemetery plot registers.

"We were going through the 'N-Book,' looking for something, when we came across it," said Frazier, who serves as the sexton for Lakeview Cemetery in South Haven. "I was like, 'Mom, you have to come look at this; it says – NWA Flight.'"

Smith responded by saying, "I wonder what this means?"

The curious mother-daughter duo wrote down the plot location and decided to visit the burial site to see if it was marked, but when they got there, they realized it wasn't. They immediately realized that victim's remains from this devastating plane crash had literally been forgotten for more than six decades.

"It's totally amazing to me that it is 65 years later and we're just finding this and connecting everything together," said Smith.

razier and Smith researched the plane crash, and quickly learned that Holland author Valerie van Heest had written a book about the ill-fated 2501 entitled Fatal Crossing.

"And I thought, 'Here's the person we can contact to find out more about this,'" added Smith.

"I always wondered what happened to the human remains that washed ashore on the beaches of South Haven," said van Heest, co-founder of (MSRA) Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates based out of Holland, Michigan. "I was disheartened to realize that the burial site has gone unmarked all these years."

Van Heest says after learning of the newly-found mass burial site, she reached out to family members of the 58 victims to let them know of the discovery and also let them know that plans were in the works to place a marker on the site.

During the process of discovering the site, Frazier and Smith also came across another revelation which happened to be much more personal to both of them.

"My great uncle, Joseph Bartnick, was one of the people who actually recovered body parts," said Smith. "When I opened Valerie's book and saw his picture on one of the pages, I wanted to cry for him because he had to be in a position like that."

Through more research, the women learned that Bartnick was on one of the first Coast Guard recovery boats to go out into the lake after the crash.

Van Heest and the two other women contacted St. Joe Monument Works, who graciously donated a stone to be placed above the burial site. The stone was delivered to the cemetery a few days before the 65th anniversary of the crash.

On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, a remembrance service was held at the grave site. South Haven Mayor Robert Burr, along with Craig Rich from the MSRA, read off all of the 58 victims' names. After each name was read, a bell was rung.

Pastor Robert Linstrom, from Trinity Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, and van Heest each offered separate messages to the more than 50 people who came out to pay their respects.

Near the end of the service, Willis Dotson played taps.

"Fifth-eight people's remains may be buried there," said van Heest. "I feel things are working to put a final closure to this accident."

Van Heest says she's currently wrapping up her 12th consecutive year of scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan, searching for the wreckage of Flight 2501.

She added that her crew recently picked up an interesting target on sonar, and they will soon have divers explore it.

The ultimate hope is that one day the plane will be found, but until that day comes, more victims of the tragedy can rest in peace knowing that after 65 years, they have finally been found.

Currently, there's an exhibit on display at the Michigan Maritime Museumin South Haven dedicated to the crash of Flight 2501.

Friday 3 July 2015


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