Worst Md. air crash killed 53

Way Back When

Flight 606: An Eastern Airlines plane bound from Newark to Miami crashed near Port Deposit in May 1947.

November 06, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Maryland's worst aviation disaster occurred on May 31, 1947, when Eastern Airline's nonstop Flight 606 from Newark, headed to Miami, crashed and burned near Port Deposit, killing all 53 passengers and crew aboard the DC-4.

As the plane hit the ground, the resultant explosion shook windows and buildings for a 5-mile radius.

Five months earlier, on Dec. 20, 1946, another Miami-bound Eastern Airliner, flying at 2,000 feet, collided in clear weather over Aberdeen with a twin-engine C-47 chartered by Universal Airlines.

Miraculously, the Eastern plane, with 50 passengers and four crewmen aboard, landed at Washington's National Airport, while the C-47, with 22 passengers and a crew of three, managed to land at Phillips Field in Aberdeen, in spite of a broken cockpit windshield and a rather large hole in its fuselage.

Eighty-five passengers escaped death, with one telling The Sun, "I thought I was going to die. This will really be something to tell the kids at school about."

Flight 606 had departed Newark in the late afternoon, and at 6: 30 p.m. crashed, cutting a wide swath through the trees before coming to rest in a thickly wooded ravine 2 miles southeast of Port Deposit.

"Several witnesses said that the plane was flying at a low altitude when an explosion, accompanied by a sheet of flame, blew the tail assembly from the main portion of the fuselage," reported The Sun.

"The plane then nosed up, flew on its back momentarily and plunged at a 45-degree angle into the woods, the witnesses said. The crash was followed immediately by a violent explosion and fire," reported the newspaper.

Rescue workers from the state police barracks at Conowingo, from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Bainbridge Naval Training Station, Havre de Grace and Port Deposit descended on the wreck site but were held back by fires that burned for three hours.

Police, soldiers and sailors were forced to cut roads to reach the wreckage in order to remove the bodies and remains of the plane.

"Not a single one of the victims can be identified. They are all burned or mutilated beyond recognition," said Dr. Robert C. Dodson, Cecil County medical examiner.

Oddly enough, workers found a pair of undamaged ballet slippers and a number of New Theater handbills among the scattered wreckage.

A case of fountain pens that had been aboard the airliner had broken wide open and littered the ground.

George McMillen, a farmer, told The Sun that he was watching the plane when he saw a flash of light before it plunged to the ground.

"Pieces of the thing flew up into the sky like turkey buzzards taking off into the air," he said.

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Airlines, said, "I want to express my deepest sympathy to the families of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated flight. In the midst of our deep sorrow, the cause of the accident must be ascertained by every authoritative source."

"Faulty maintenance and inspection were involved" in the crash of the Eastern Airlines plane, a Senate report later concluded.

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