Hike to the site of Flight 349 crash site
WSLS 10 Anchor John Carlin hiked to the 55-year-old crash site of Piedmont Flight 349 to see the remaining wreckage and reflect on the crash that killed 26 people. With his group was one man who had a special reason for being there.
(WSLS 10) - It's been 55 years since Piedmont Flight 349 crashed into a mountain outside Crozet, killing 26 of the 27 people on board. Remarkably, these many years later, large pieces of the wreckage remain on the mountain. Hundreds if not thousands of curiosity seekers have visited the site over the years, but there is a story from a local man that's never been told.
First, the Journey
It's not easy to get to the site where Piedmont Flight 349 crashed on a foggy night on October 30 of 1959. Local landowner Bahlmann Abbot led us via four-wheel drive over a series of Jeep roads to a place we could hike down to the site from the top of Bucks Elbow Mountain.
We were looking at a hike of about 3 miles round trip – not terrible since it was mostly in open hardwoods, but the terrain was steep and even Bahlmann was not exactly sure of the location of the wreckage. He navigated from a map he had drawn several years ago with directions such as, "Take a left at the dead tree."
We were not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. The alternative route from Mint Springs Park is a six mile round trip with similar obstacles to success. And despite his professed uncertainty, Bahlmann seemed like a guide who really would get us there.
With his help, our group which included members of the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department picked our way to the wreckage.
View a slideshow of the photos John took on his hike here.
We Arrive with a Special Mission
When we arrived we found the main section of the fuselage resting near a rock ledge. We would later learn that the plane struck the ledge as it made impact.
With our group was a man who had a special reason for coming. In fact, his mission was the reason we were there at all.
"The very first thing you think of is what could have been," said Chuck McFarland, who was a teenager in Salem at the time of the crash.
His father was planning to be on that flight, but he was delayed in getting to the airport.
"A couple weeks after the incident we were at home and he simply said quietly I was supposed to be on that plane, but I was late to the airport," said McFarland, standing next to the wreckage
Chuck, who is now in his early 70's joined the rest of the group as we searched around the crash site. We found lots of debris – mostly unidentifiable pieces of airplane scattered among the leaves within about 200 feet of the fuselage.
It was amazing to us that 55 years later there was still so much to be found.
The Story of the Crash
Remarkably because of the lone survivor, Phil Bradley we know a lot about the final moments of the doomed flight. He wrote a book about his experience, and an Internet search for Piedmont Flight 349 will keep you reading for some time.
(The cause of the crash is disputed to this day. But the conflicting opinions are easy to find.)
We know that Bradley himself was stuck in the woods, still strapped to his airplane seat for nearly three days, while authorities searched for the missing DC-3. And we also know a great deal about the rescue and recovery efforts.
For this story we were able to interview two men who were there the day the wreckage was discovered.
"It was awful," said Jesse Seale, who was 14 at the time. He arrived with members of the rescue team and witnessed them carrying Bradley from the site on a stretcher. He also saw all the dead.
"Some of the people were still strapped in their seatbelts to some degree. Not many in the plane itself. Just kind of disintegrated that you know," he told me. Seale also had other descriptions of what he saw that were too graphic for print. Despite the nature of what he saw—he says he was fine emotionally after just one night. "But it bothered my father for a long time," he said.
Alvin Toms played a more active role that first day. In his late 20's and a member of the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, he assisted in carrying the dead to the top of the mountain on stretchers. Having just struggled through that climb with only a small day pack I wondered how they ever accomplished their gruesome task.
"You'd go about ten steps and somebody would have to relieve ya," Toms explained. I asked him how many bodies he helped remove. "Just one," he said.
But Toms wasn't done with his service to the tragedy. Along with two other men, he was assigned the job of protecting the site the first night after it was discovered. Armed with pistols and hunting rifles, the men sat on the rock ledge to make sure looters didn't come to pilfer the wreckage. At daybreak three men walked in. Toms believes they were there to look for valuables. "But we told them they couldn't be there and they just went on along," he said.
View a slideshow of the photos John took on his hike here.
A Small Snip for Closure
So there we were, standing among the debris some 55 years later. We were thinking about the arduous hike still facing us to get back to the vehicles, about how hard it must have been for the rescue/recovery team, about the many families in this part of Virginia who lost loved ones on that flight – and of course about Chuck's father – who was 43 at the time and went on to live to 86. As Chuck put it, "If he had been on that flight, he wouldn't have lived the second half of his life."
Chuck removed a set of tin snips from his backpack and carefully removed a dime-sized piece of aluminum from the wreckage.
"I'm going to take as small a piece of aluminum as I can," he said. "And I want to put that piece into the ground next to their grave site. In a small way he told me, "…it would be a bit of closure."
Want to do the Hike? We were able to access the wreckage from above only with special permission from the landowners. Access is restricted by a locked gate. However many people choose to hike from Mint Springs Park. Here is a link to one way to do that.
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