Bucks Elbow Mountain, near Crozet, Va. – The prophet Ezekiel is known for having a wheel within a wheel, where each carries a different meaning. The effort to return a wheel – a piece of landing gear – to the place where many people died, also involved a wheel within a wheel – and a different meaning for each of those who participated. Thus, the epic effort was dubbed “Project Ezekiel.”
On Oct. 30, 1959, Piedmont Flight 349 flew into the side of remote and steep Bucks Elbow Mountain, just outside Crozet, Virginia, killing 26 people.
Rescue crews could not begin their efforts until more than 36 hours later, after the wreckage of the DC 3 was finally spotted.
Phil Bradley, whose seat was ripped from the plane during the crash, was the lone survivor. He would go on to live a normal life and even write a book about the experience.
But an excursion on the 60th anniversary of the crash was all about paying tribute to those who did not survive.
The mission: Get the wheel down the mountain
Volunteers wanted to return a wheel from the landing gear to the crash site – after someone rolled it off the mountain a long time ago.
Eventually, it landed in the hands of Mark Cline of Lexington, Virginia.
“It needed to be done. It’s a matter of paying respects and remembrance. These people shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Cline when asked why one would go to such effort.
To accomplish the task, he attached the airplane wheel to the axle of a huge metal spool that utility companies use to carry conduit or cable. The idea would be to roll the larger wheel down the mountain to the crash site. The tire on the old airplane wheel popped years ago, making it impossible for volunteers to roll it back to the site. It also would have been awkward to carry.
Cline gathered a crew, put the rig on the back of a pick-up and drove it up the mountain, and into the clouds – in foggy conditions not unlike the day of the crash itself.
The nervousness of the volunteers was evident in a prayer spoken at the top of the hill by a man who visited the crash site just days after it happened in 1959.
“Let’s not get fingers pinched or any broken bones -- and Lord, we know this could get kinda hairy at any point in time,” he prayed.
A massive undertaking
The path to the site is anything but easy. The wheel needed to be pushed over many rocks, often the size of large beer coolers. Cline carried a chainsaw to remove saplings that stood in the way. A number of fallen trees had to be cut and a section removed in order to allow the volunteers to roll the spool through.
One portion of the trail, about 100 feet long, consisted of nothing but large boulders.
Part way through, the wheel started to tip on its side. It looked like they might not make it.
“We did lose a hold of the wheel at one time and that got a little hairy,” Cline said. “When we got to that big tree, there was no way we were going to roll that over the tree, so we figured we would put a little physics into action and just slide it over the tree, and that seemed to work."
“The rocks and the dead logs -- overcoming those was pretty difficult,” said David Treccariche, who helped roll the wheel.
But, he said, he never felt like they wouldn’t make it.
The crash site is not well marked.
Volunteer Bill Fawcett scouted the route a few days in advance.
“We walked all over this mountain trying to find it," he said. “The coordinates we had were not good, but we finally found it. So then I plotted a path that we used here. This is the path of least resistance, believe it or not.”
On this day, in the fog, it was even harder.
The fog was so thick, you could not see the tops of some of the trees. The sound of the effort to roll the wheel through the dense woods had an eerie effect.
As we approached the crash site, we still couldn’t see the wreckage, and no one but Fawcett knew we were nearing the end of the journey.
Reporter John Carlin: So, how far do you think?
Fawcett: 150 to 200.
Arriving at the scene
For Dave Whetzel, who hiked in with the group, it was an emotional moment. He was a child when his uncle, Louis Sheffield, died in the crash.
“It was a very emotional, stressful time for my family -- not knowing if my uncle was alive or dead,” Whetzel said. “I just think of my uncle laying on this mountain for 36 hours.”
Fred Woods was 9 when he visited the site just days after the crash. He had not been back since.
“There were women’s purses strewn with stuff spilling out of them and shoes. I remember there being shoes everywhere,” Woods recalled.
He took a small souvenir, a piece of metal about the size of a 50-cent piece -- something he didn’t do in 1959. At the time, he had picked up a small part from the engine, perhaps a spark plug. But one of the people guarding the site noticed.
“Guy was sitting on this rock right here and he said, ’Hey you,’ and I’m like, ‘Is he hollering at me?’ (And) he said, ‘Whatever that is, put it back.'”
Which he did.
Paying tribute to those who died on Flight 349
Then, one by one, the volunteers read the names of those who died in the crash. Whetzel read the name of his uncle, tears in his eyes.
The volunteers placed the wheel as close to the landing gear as possible. It seemed the most logical place to leave it.
“Well, you want to get things as right as you can get ‘em," Cline said. "And I’m glad we got it all the way here.”
“I think it’s very important," added Whetzel. "It’s kept the memory of the 26 people that died, alive. I just think this is another piece of aviation history."
Whetzel also made a special effort to thank Cline for putting the return of the wheel into motion.
Cline tucked the the paper bearing the names into the wreckage. The paper won’t last. But the wheel is back where it belongs and the memory will remain ever-etched in the minds of the people who took part in this odyssey, a wheel within a wheel rolled and cajoled to a 60-year-old crash site on the side of Buck Elbow Mountain.