While residents were returning from evening church services, finishing up a late supper or watching “The Ed Sullivan Show,” five airliners were circling above Elkton, waiting for the OK to fly the 44 miles home to Philadelphia.
On that night, Dec. 8, 1963, Flight 214, a Pan American Airways Boeing 707, was returning to the U.S. from from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Onboard: 73 passengers and eight crew members.
Most passengers were returning from vacation. There were three groups of golfers, the alumni from Northeastern University who took a winter vacation every year, two honeymoon couples and a young woman bringing her infant son to meet his grandparents for the first time.
There was a nurse, an employee of Campbell Soup, a furniture dealer, a real estate broker and several dentists.
Back home, there were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sister and brothers and friends. There was the airplane stewardess who changed her flight plans at the last minute.
And in Elkton, an unusual winter thunderstorm rattled the small town with pouring rain, wind and flashes of lightning.
Then, at 8:58 p.m., Flight 214 broadcasted to Philadelphia.
“MAYDAY. Clipper 214 is going down in flames.”
Local residents became witnesses, reporting they saw lightning strike the plane and send an orange fireball to the ground. Those waiting for loved ones to come home heard erroneous reports of a crash in Newark, Del., and began to worry.
It was the end of the flight, but the beginning of a hellacious series of days.
This Sunday marks 50 years since the fatal crash. Decades later, the memories are still fresh for Elkton residents, although many who witnessed that night are now gone, and family and friends are still trying to find closure.
The late fall of 1963 started off as an exciting time for Cecil County.
The first commercial radio, WSER, had started to broadcast. Towns were abuzz about the Northeastern Expressway that President John F. Kennedy came to dedicate in a ceremony on Nov. 14.
Then, with Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, the year turned bleak. Just when the county thought it couldn’t get any worse, Dec. 8 arrived to deliver the largest aviation disaster in Maryland’s history, said Mike Dixon, of the Historical Society of Cecil County.
“In a community’s history, there are lots of things that add to the heritage of that place. And for the generation that was alive back at that time, albeit a catastrophic moment, this is one of them,” Dixon said.
The Historical Society keeps a brown file folder on Flight 214 filled with article clippings, death certificates and official documents relating the crash. There is even a portion of the plane on display. Besides the requests for information on genealogy or old homes, local historians receive the most inquirers about Flight 214.
Through work the society is doing now, future generations will have more information available regarding Flight 214. When relatives, friends and local witnesses gather in memory of the crash this weekend, members of the historical society will meet them privately to record their recollections.
“Our obligation is to document history, and this was a sad one, but a formative one,” Dixon said.
The weather that Sunday night was an odd storm — rain, sleet, thunder and lightning — more appropriate for a sticky summer night.
Driving north on Route 213, Don Hash, then 25, was returning from a police call in Chesapeake City when he saw lightning in the shape of a wishbone, followed seconds later by the blast of a bright orange cloud and a falling airplane wing.
Hash, out of the police academy only 18 months, was one of three troopers on patrol that night, along with a handful of the sheriff’s deputies. He immediately headed in the direction of the flames and was the first person on the scene.
“It was just a bunch of debris strewn over the area there, I don’t recall any suitcases or anything like that. It was a muddy night because it had been raining awful hard. It was just one muddy mess,” Hash said.
The area where the plane crashed off Delancy Road is now the neighborhood of Turnquist, but was then only populated by a few farm houses. Residents recalled their yards lighting up and houses shaking.
“They said, ‘Daddy come quick, there’s a falling star’ and I said, ‘That’s no falling star, that’s a plane,’” the Rev. Howard Van Sice, who was with his children at their West Main Street home in Elkton at the time of the crash, said in a 1983 interview with the Whig.
Mae Grant, who was visiting her parents with her 3-month-old son at the Delancy Road family home at the time of the crash, recalled the dramatic moment in another previous interview with the Whig.
“Everything outside lit up and as soon as I looked up I could see the plane on fire. I remember my dad yelling, ‘Run,’ and I remember saying, ‘Run where?’”
Before 9 p.m., Rosemary Culley, the lone emergency service dispatcher on that night, issued a couple routine airchecks. Then she hollered loud and clear over the crackling radio waves: “Station 3 you have a plane crash.”
Elkton Chief Edgar Slaughter was in charge from the scene that night. Despite those who had rushed to the scene with him, he needed more help. Over the radio, Culley came in again: “All available ambulances respond to a plane crash at Delancy Road in Elkton.”
Hampton Scott, then 24, saw the plane go down from his home on Bow Street. At first, he thought the glow was from a distant barn fire. Then the wing of the plane rotated in the sky as it was falling. A member of the local fire company, Scott raced to the firehouse, about a block away.
Although the initial impact of the plane created a great blaze, by the time first responders arrived at the scene, the force of the plane falling to earth had buried pockets of fire into the ground. Once there, responders realized there weren’t going to be any survivors.
Scott left the scene to report to his job as a mail worker at 5 a.m. on Monday. He had three young daughters at home, ages 4, 3 and 1. He tried to keep in the Christmas spirit for his girls.
“It was certainly one of the worst things I ever saw. I certainly can’t imagine anything worse,” Scott said.
For people who grew up in America between WWII and the Korean War, aviation was a thrilling new frontier, explains Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program.
“Aviation is inherently interesting because it involves almost a sublime and unexpected activity,” he said.
With its swift speeds and glamorous allure, the 1958 debut of the Boeing 707 is generally credited with ushering the Jet Age, which peaked in the 1960s. It was the way to travel in style, equipped the way a railroad club car would be with a lounge and other comforts.
In 50 years though, Anthony points out air travel safety has increased “phenomenally.” There are now about 0.2 fatal accidents per million departures on commercial air carriers.
In the 1960s, traveling by air, although popular, was not without danger.
Alongside the story of the Elkton crash, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported it was the seventh disaster involving a Boeing 707. The first, in November 1962, happened when a Los Angeles-bound Varig Airlines 707 struck a mountain. Another was due to a bomb, and another due to a failed landing attempt.
Cecil County witnessed the dangers of the Jet Age relatively early.
Memorial Day 1947, Eastern Airlines Flight 605 fell from the sky with 53 people on board, landing in a wooded area off Principio Road outside Port Deposit, according to records at the Historical Society. Even more than 60 years later, the cause of that crash remains a mystery.
Flight 605 was one of the worst fatal crashes in Maryland history, but nothing compared to Flight 214.
Still, if there was anyone to trust in the skies in 1963, it was George F. Knuth, then 45 and pilot of Flight 214.
Back in January 1949, passengers credited “the coolness” of Knuth for saving the lives of 33 persons on board, according to an UP article published at the time. On a clear day, Knuth was piloting a Pan Am Constellation “Monarch of the Skies” when a small private plane collided into its backend 3,500-feet above Long Island.
Knuth landed his plane with the other plane still attached. He credited his team for the smooth emergency landing. The passengers said Capt. Knuth, later called a “hero pilot,” was being too modest.
“He never lost control for an instant. After the collision we dropped slightly, as though we had hit an air pocket. Then we went on and made the landing as though nothing had happened,” said one passenger, D. E. Wilson, of Peekskill, N.Y., in the article.
Carol Knuth Sakoian is reminded of her father whenever she smells a cigar or hears classical music.
George F. Knuth was an Iowa farm boy who originally wanted to be a science teacher, but then joined the military to fly planes. He always had a big garden, even when living on Long Island. The family would have meals with six or eight vegetables at a time, even eggplant, which was then considered kind of unusual.
In his 22 years with Pan Am, Knuth had 17,049 hours total flying, with 2,890 hours flying a Boeing 707.
Knuth usually piloted international flights around the globe, meaning he was away for weeks at a time. When his son was born, the last addition to the three Knuth girls, he decided to take shorter trips. Flying to Puerto Rico meant several days at home before several days away. That November, the family had even been able to travel to Antigua for a short vacation.
On the night of Dec. 8, 1963, Carol, then 16, was studying in her room for a French test. It was a cold night and snowing. Around 11 p.m., she heard the front door open and her mother, Elizabeth, walk to the neighbor’s house.
The news of the crash — complete with pilot’s name — had been broadcast on the evening news. One of the neighbors, a physician, came back to the house with Elizabeth to administer a sedative. Members of the Airline Pilots Association then arrived in the middle of the night to guard the house against the press.
“The worst part of the night was the constant realization that is was true,” Carol said. “When I finally went to sleep, I dreamed it wasn’t true. I guess our minds do that.”
Weeks after the crash, Carol received two Christmas gifts that her father had purchased before the crash: a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” and 45-rpm records of folksinger Burl Ives, which he thought was popular music.
It wasn’t Elvis Presley, but she still has the records.
If Christmas 1963 had been like any other year, Jeff Gilbert’s father would have covered the living room with sheets to keep the kids from peeking.
But on Dec. 8, Gilbert had to call his grandparents to tell them his parents, Robert and Joyce, had died on Flight 215. His father, a dentist in Allentown, Pa., was giving a lecture at the University of Puerto Rico and brought his wife.
Gilbert remembers his mother as jovial, with a good sense of humor. His father a mixture of professional and thoughtful. Although a dedicated worker, his father always made time to spend summers at a cottage in Avalon, N.J., with the family.
Gilbert, then 15, was watching “Bonanza” with his younger sister when the news broke there had been a plane crash. He called Pan Am and the company confirmed his parents were on the flight.
When Gilbert finally went to bed that night he remembers looking out his bedroom window and seeing neighbors silently standing in the front yard watching the house.
Life was different without parents.
“I still like Christmas very much,” he said. “It’s different when you don’t share it with a mother and a father, but I love Christmas. I try to make Christmas for my wife and kids a special time.”
By morning, gruesome details were visible in Elkton. First responders and police from throughout Cecil County had responded to the call, along with men from the Bainbridge Naval Training Center.
“Vacation clothing, some hanging in trees and some lying neatly folded on hangers in a ditch. The four men’s suits on the right had no texture, they were charred to ash and disintegrated at the touch of a finger,” read a photo caption published in the Cecil Whig in the days following the crash.
Cecil County had experienced its own loss when Steward Godwin, of the North East Fire Company, collapsed at the scene about 1:30 a.m. on Monday. He died of a heart attack.
The crash site, centered in a field of the Berry Family Farm, covered a four-mile area. Debris, pieces of the plane and oil were scattered through the field, in trees and on cars and houses.
On the seventh day, a memorial service was held at the crash site.
It would be two more days until Dr. Russell S. Fisher, state medical examiner, identified all the bodies. Fingerprints, dental records and personal effects found nearby were the primary means of identification. For more difficult cases, Fisher and his team reconstructed faces as best possible using mannequins.
The recovery process took as many hearses and removal vehicles as possible, recalled Don Hicks, whose family owns Hicks Home for Funerals in Elkton. Able to drive his family’s gray station wagon, Hicks, then only 13, drove remains from the crash site to the temporary Red Cross station and morgue set up at the armory.
It was a natural response for the town to come together in a time of need.
“You weren’t obligated to do it, but you wanted to do it, you wanted to help your neighbor in need,” he said. His father coordinated many arrangements for families coming in to pick up the remains of loved ones. His mother, a volunteer with the Red Cross, was there to welcome families with coffee and sandwiches.
Henry Shaffer, then 16, cut school for a couple days to volunteer at the crash site as a firefighter. He responded Sunday night after hearing the call to come in over the radio while working on a school report about the assassination of President Kennedy. In the days following, he slept at a relative’s home on Delancy Road so he could stay close.
Thinking about the incident today, Shaffer questions whether it was easier for him to handle the situation than the older men in the fields, those who likely questioned what would happen to their families if they were killed in a horrific accident.
“As I look back on it now, I have to say that maybe I receive some solace or comfort now in having assisted with the recovery of the crash victims’ bodies, as difficult as it was for me then,” he said.
It was a 12-day recovery process. When the area was finished, 16 truckloads of wreckage were taken to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., for investigators with the Civil Aeronautics Board to reassemble to determine the cause of the crash.
Scientists said it was “improbable” for lightning to have caused the crash, Delaware’s News Journal reported. If lightning was the cause of a fatal crash, it would be a first in the history of U.S. commercial aviation.
The then director of DuPont’s engineering physics research laboratories told the paper he had once been on a plane struck by lightning and those inside the cabin hardly noticed; the metal skin of the airplane carried the lightning’s current.
“I can’t believe the possibility that a combination of circumstances caused a lightning bolt to break the airplane up,” the scientist said.
Turbulence, unusually fast and heavy icing and the possibility of an insufficient lift in the jet’s wings were all theorized as causes.
It would later be released that the crash happened when lightning ignited a reserve fuel tank, resulting in the left outer wing exploding and loss of control.
The aircraft was destroyed by explosion, impact and fire. The accident is considered the worst lightning strike death toll.
In response to the findings, officials called for all commercial jets flying in the U.S. to be installed with lightning discharge wicks.
Following the crash, Rueben Miller Jr. came down from Pennsylvania to speak with investigators and collect the remains of his sister, Joyce Gilbert, and her husband, Robert. Outside the armory, Miller, then 35, met a first responder who had been working in the field all night.
“He said, ‘I can assure you that the remains that you get back will be the remains of your loved ones,’” Miller recalled. First responders later found and returned Joyce and Robert’s wedding rings to the family.
This weekend, more than 20 of Joyce and Robert’s family members will visit Elkton. The Historical Society expects hundreds to visit this weekend to pay their respects and record their memories.
“It’s certainly painful to relive some of it, but maybe it’s freeing at the same time,” said Richard Sherman, who lost his father, Arnold, in the crash. Sherman and more than a dozen of his family members are coming this weekend.
The day of the crash, Arnold was returning with friends from a golf trip. He worked long hours and rarely took a vacation, especially without his wife. Sherman, then 15, was home with his mother and younger brother in Wynnewood, Pa., when he heard the news of the plane crash over the radio.
Some years, the anniversary of his father’s death falls during Hanukkah. In memory of his father, Sherman will light a yahrzeit candle. He likes to remember the simple moments he spent with his father, watching TV and eating pizza.
“I think he would want us to be brave and move forward, and be sensitive and thoughtful,” Sherman said. “I think we have honored his memory in how we live our lives in a good way.”
Chris Knuth, son to the pilot, has found solace in digging through the details of the crash. He was just 6 years old in 1963.
“Finding out how many other people were affected by it, my sorrows weren’t really my own anymore,” Chris said.
Like other family members of victims, Chris said he was grateful to the people of Elkton for responding to the tragedy. Chris has visited Elkton several times to meet with witnesses and visit the crash site, now marked with a commemorative stone.
He has few memories of his father — the garden, sitting on his lap at Christmas dinner, watching him ride a bike — but he’s been able to feel connected to him by traveling to places his father went.
There was never a second thought about putting the Knuth children on planes after the crash. Pan Am provided the family with passes to travel. They saw the Taj Mahal and the Buddhist temples in Thailand. They sometimes got the thrill of traveling first class.
Still, there are times when bad turbulence makes Chris nervous. There was one trip when the plane suddenly dropped, knocking a flight attendant unconscious after she hit the ceiling.
His sister, Carol, keeps flying, too. Based in New York City, she frequently travels internationally for business.
With the jet-setting lifestyle, farewells aren’t said lightly.
“We never let anyone go away mad when we say goodbye,” Carol said. “We don’t take leaving each other for granted.”