Tuesday, 25 February 2014

50 Years after Eastern Air Lines Flight 304 crashed into Lake Pontchartrain leaving no survivors, something still remains

The flight took off from Moisant Field at 2:01 a.m. on its way to Atlanta. It was lost from radar screens just nine minutes later. A worker on a dredge anchored in Lake Pontchartrain saw a greenish light. And on the north shore, in Mandeville, Mrs. R.C. Smith heard a bang. Nearby, a young couple momentarily paused the Beatles record spinning in the living room: a sound like thunder had, momentarily, drowned out the sound of the 1960s.

"What was it?" Ella Rogers asked her boyfriend, Craig Knight.

Then they put the record back on.

"It" was the crash of Eastern Air Lines flight 304, a jetliner capable of carrying 126 people, crashing into Lake Pontchartrain five miles west of the Causeway, killing all 58 on board - Feb. 25, 1964. The event, 50 years ago today, marked the first jet liner crash in New Orleans history - a day that weaned the city from the heady days of commercial air travel's infancy into a stark new reality, recalled aviation historian Vincent P. Caire.

"It was a brand new, a relatively new jet aircraft. Everyone was very proud of it," Caire said. "It was the first big DC-8 crash, the first in New Orleans, and it exposed a very significant problem."

Though investigations have since uncovered the mechanical failure that caused the crash, it went down in local lore as something of a mystery. Investigators stopped seeking wreckage 45 days later, after uncovering a reported 56% of what they had expected to find. But where was the rest of the aircraft? Where were the remains of 26 passengers - to this day not identified?

Where the aircraft crashed, five to seven miles south of Mandeville's shore, the water was 15 feet deep. Recovery workers blamed the silt layers below for swallowing the evidence; they said the plane could be as far as 50 feet below the water's surface.

Still, investigators did find evidence: the co-pilot's jacket - with the name "G.W. Newby" stencilled on; a hand-tooled leather purse; a child's red coat; two tires; a doll. They filled a hangar at the Lakefront Airport with what was found, including the remains of 32 bodies.

"The last thing we picked up was a child's red coat," Lt. Dennis G. McDaniel told The Times-Picayune on Feb. 26. "Just a short distance away we spotted the doll. We headed for the doll but the fuel was getting low. So we left it floating there in the water."

Grieving for 50 years

The plane could carry 126 passengers but on that night was only ferrying 51 and a crew of seven. Among the lost was 21-year-old Barbara Delane Norman, of Atlanta, who had rebelled against Eastern Air Lines' policy of not allowing married stewardesses; on the day of her death, she had been married for three days.

She was on board to serve Marie-Helene LeFaucheux, 59, another pioneering woman. The French delegate to the United Nations during World War II, LeFaucheux had fought the Nazis in the French resistance effort - work that earned her France's Legion of Honor award and a spot on the U.N. Commission for Human Rights. She was one of the 15 founding members of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Alongside LeFaucheux was Kenneth Spencer, 51, a well-known concert singer who had been en route to perform in New York before a delegation of the NAACP. Born in Los Angeles, Spencer had forged his career in Hollywood to land a role in the 1946 Broadway revival of "Show Boat." Onstage, he played "Joe," the riverboat worker whose deep bass leads into the musical's most lasting ballad: "Ol' Man River."

Also on board were five victims from New Orleans -- a 23-year-old graduate of Newcomb College, flying back to New York for work at a bank; a 66-year-old engineer who left behind a family in Harahan on the eve of his retirement; a 38-year-old freight executive from Chalmette; and a 50-year-old man who died on the way to his mother's funeral.

The fifth local victim was Patrick Kane, an engineer and the father of a junior in high school. Asleep on the night of Feb. 25, Patrick Kane II recalled that his mother woke him, to say, "Dad's plane is missing."

In the days, months, and years afterward, the tragedy has touched Kane's life. "It's been over 18,000 days since that night, and I think of him pretty often," Kane said. "I guess there's no good time to lose a father, but I think at that age - when you're in sort of a transition from a teenager into a college student, and then a career -- I guess it, really -- it changed my perspective."

The mechanical failure & the mythology of the mystery

When it went down, Flight 304 was puddle-jumping from Mexico City, to New Orleans, to Atlanta, to Washington D.C., to New York.

The cause of the crash was a single mechanical part, which had been removed 15 times from various Eastern aircraft for problems, before being installed into the plane carrying Flight 304, said David Lee Russell, author of "Eastern Air Lines: A History." It was scheduled for maintenance at Kennedy airport -- the plane's final scheduled stop. The problem part was a flap mechanism -- a "pitch trim compensator" -- that could be raised or lowered to control a plane's speed. The investigation found that the flap was in the wrong position as the aircraft gained height, and the crew was unable to scramble to push it into the correct position. Rising winds might have made the issue worse. At around 1,500 feet over Lake Pontchartrain, the crew lost control of the airplane, Caire said.

Due to the accident, the pitch trim compensator on all DC-8s were investigated, Caire recalled. The issue did not hamper the DC-8's reputation as a reliable plane, he said, and even today DC-8s are used as cargo carriers.

But in the history of Eastern Air Lines, the flight marked a turning point, Russell said. In the wake of the crash, the company's new vice president of maintenance overhauled the entire program, hiring 300 new mechanics and leasing reserve aircrafts - so that an airplane that needed it could be repaired at leisure without threatening to cancel flights, Russell explained.

"For Eastern Air Lines, it was an indictment of the mechanical program," Russell said.

Though the April 14, 1964 issue of The Times-Picayune published an editorial, in which, "No intimation has been given that the disintegration owes itself to anything other than force of impact in water and soil," the article also mused on the incident as "a designated mystery." The only answers to the crash, really, the editorial opined, existed in "the lake's secrets."

Those secrets might have been revealed by the flight's recorder, which was partially recovered. Unfortunately, the recovered portion was blank, chief information officer for Eastern Airlines Jack Yohe told The Times-Picayune.

To investigate the crash, the FBI stepped in - joining the Coast Guard, a staff from Eastern Air Lines, and a 14-man investigation team from the Civil Aeronautics Board. An FBI spokesman told The Times-Picayune that the bureau sought "to develop any information indicating a possible violation of federal law."

Less than four months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the lack of debris found, the missing recorder, and the FBI's strong arm seemed to mirror a lack of autopsy evidence surrounding death of a president, recalled James W. Bailey, who investigated the crash as part of an art piece, spurred by the ghost stories his mother-in-law would tell around the table of the "missing plane" to shock guests.

After hearing the story "more than once," Bailey said, he sought to investigate the crash in his own way, only to draw connections to how New Orleans had dealt with the assassination of Kennedy. He said that around the crash, one could point to connections that appeared to go very deep, in the same way District Attorney Jim Garrison had sought to find connections between Lee Harvey Oswald and other New Orleanians. "This crash took place shortly after the Kennedy assassination, which of course was huge news in new Orleans," Bailey said. "I started seeing connections there. Not factual. But mythological connections."

As Bailey started asking New Orleanians about the crash, he said he heard the same story over and over: that the plane had crashed, and never been found. "All of them had the impression it had never been found when in fact, they did find it," Bailey said. "It's a very popular myth in New Orleans. This myth got generated that nothing was ever found."

"When you get down to it, an airline crash is a very factual investigation," Bailey said. "This is a kind of controversial statement, but my experience living in New Orleans is that New Orleanians treasure mythologies."

To Caire, the aviation historian, conspiracy theories on the flight's disappearance are "all baloney sausage," he said. "It had a mechanical failure, it hit the water, it disintegrated, and a lot of people lost their lives."

The crash lingers today

Though Eastern filed for bankruptcy in 1989, it is now seeing a rebirth. In January, a group that had purchased the rights to the Eastern name announced plans to revive the company, to be based out of Miami.

On Airline Drive in Metairie, Eastern Airlines still exists in a static form. At the Garden of Memories, a plaque surrounded by a hedgerow lists the names of the 32 victims whose remains were never identified.

"Every now and then we'll have a family member here who says, 'I remember that plane crash,'" said Marion Lyons, the sales manager of Garden of Memories. In the last decade, however, visits have fallen off, Lyons said. "I hate to say it like this but people just kind of lost interest."

Several years ago, Caire recalled being contacted by the daughter of a man who was killed on board, when she was only an infant. "I was personally so touched," he said.

Bailey, the artist, became fascinated enough with the crash to pull files from the New Orleans Public Library, where he found a trove of letters written by the families of victims, asking for their loved ones' remains. Bailey wrote back to the return addresses, sending along a book he compiled of pasted evidence he had found in the archive and interviews with major characters associated with the investigation.

"I heard back from three of them," Bailey said, of the families he sent it to. "They sent thank you letters."

Patrick Kane II has moved on from the tragedy, though it also has shaped his life. He said his father always had plans for the two of them to go into business together. And now Kane II works in Lafayette at a machine tool distributor alongside his own son, Patrick Kane III.

"That part of my dream - being in business with him - I've followed in those footsteps," said Kane, now 66. "In fact, my son is buying me out."

Tuesday 25 February 2014


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Uttarakhand flash floods: A tragedy twice over for Delhi victims' families

For families of those killed in last year's devastating flash floods in Uttarakhand, it's a double whammy.

First, many of them were not even able to trace the bodies of their near and dear ones, swept away by the killer floods in the Himalayan state in June last year.

And now, eight months later, they have to face a cumbersome process to get compensation as promised by the government, thanks to bureaucratic red-tapism.

On June 16 and 17 last year, the flash floods had devastated the fabled Kedarnath valley, sweeping away village after village and leaving over 4000 dead or missing (persons whose bodies have not been recovered are presumed dead but still officially listed as missing).

Around 237 persons from Delhi were said to have died in the tragedy and bodies of most of them were swept away by the swirling waters, resulting from a cloud burst in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand.

After the mandatory 90 days, the Uttarakhand government notified a list of 143 persons as untraceable and issued death certificates to them by November 2013.

Immediately after the list was notified, the Uttarakhand government also transferred Rs. 5.50 crore to be paid as compensation to the families of those who were killed or went missing.

The responsibility of disbursing the money was given to the Delhi government.

On its part, the Delhi government issued detailed guidelines for verification of the persons, whose death certificates were issued by the Uttarakhand government, before releasing the money.

It notified the sub-divisional officers (tehsildars) for verification of the claims and ensuring proper documentation before release of the money.

According to the guidelines, the officer will have to ensure that the first information report (FIR) about the missing person was filed before June 30, 2013. Also the claims made by the person have to be verified with the database maintained by the district disaster management authority.

Also, if the FIR had been filed beyond this the time limit (June 30), the reasons for approaching the police late should be inquired.

The officer was also asked to inquire whether the victim had traveled to Uttarakhand and the person was missing since he or she left for the Himalayan state.

The directives were issued to the officers by the Delhi government in January, after Arvind Kejriwal took over as Delhi chief minister.

"Despite the guidelines and issuance of death certificates by the Uttarakhand government, most of the families have not received any money from the government. We raised the issue when our party was in the government. But it did not had any impact on the bureaucracy," said Rajesh Garg, an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislator.

Some family-members of the victims have been running from pillar to post to get the compensation.

"My father was the only bread-earner of the family. The compensation will help me to set up a small business to provide livelihood for my family," said Rajesh Pandey, whose father was one of the persons who has been confirmed as missing by the Uttarakhand government.

The family-members have objected to the Delhi government's cumbersome verification process saying that the Uttarakhand government has already provided photographs of the victims after conducting necessary verification.

"I don't understand why the government wants us to undergo the painful and tedious process again," a person, not willing to be quoted and have lost his mother in the tragedy, said.

A Delhi government official, however, said that directions have been issued to speed up the verification process and disburse compensation as quickly as possible.

Tuesday 25 February 2014


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8 dead, 30 injured as suspension bridge collapses in Vietnam

At least eight people died and more than 30 others were injured when a suspension bridge collapsed over a dry stream in the northwestern province of Lai Chau Monday.

The accident happened at around 8:30 a.m. as a group of local residents walked across the Chu Va 6 Bridge to bring the coffin of a local official to a graveyard in Chu Va Village, Son Binh Commune.

The group had walked 15 meters on the bridge when it suddenly collapsed.

They reportedly fell 9 meters into a ravine full of large, sharp rocks. Eight people died on the spot.

More than 30 people were injured. They were rushed to the hospital by nearby residents.

The 54-meter-long Chu Va 6 Bridge opened to traffic more than one year ago.

The cause of the accident is currently under investigation.

Tuesday 25 February 2014


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