9 Years Later, a Fatal Mystery Solved
Saturday, August 16, 2008
On a July day nine years ago, amid a bleak, rocky landscape near the foot of an ancient volcano in southeastern Alaska, two amateur plane crash detectives found Frank Van Zandt's left arm.
They didn't know that the pale remains, which resembled a delicate glove, belonged to the long-dead merchant seaman from Roanoke.
All they knew was that they were at the site of a plane crash almost 50 years before whose wreckage had been held in the grip of a glacier since 1948. They already had found scattered airplane debris, but nothing like this.
"Oh my God," airline pilot Kevin McGregor recalls his comrade, Marc Millican, saying that day. McGregor replied: "What is it?"
Yesterday, McGregor and a team of amateur and professional forensic and genealogical sleuths gathered at George Washington University to formally announce that the arm was that of Francis Joseph Van Zandt, then 36, and was the sole piece of human remains recovered from the crash that killed 30 people.
The announcement capped a nine-year probe into the mystery, which utilized cutting-edge fingerprint and DNA technology as well as dogged research by genealogists that tracked down a distant cousin of Van Zandt's in western Ireland.
It also brought to a close the saga of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422, which crashed March 12, 1948, and climaxed an investigation that McGregor called "the adventure of a lifetime."
McGregor, an avid outdoorsman, said he embarked on the project because "originally, it was an Alaskan mystery. But also, I have to be honest with you, it was an adventure."
The arm is currently in the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, where it will stay for research purposes.
The story began at 9:14 that night in March 1948 when the chartered four-engine DC-4 airliner was returning from China, bearing a crew of six and 24 merchant seamen who had just sailed a loaded oil tanker, the SS Sunset, from Bahrain to Shanghai.
Among the sailors was Van Zandt, a strapping, blond-haired native of Vermont who had been a certified seaman, working out of the port of New York, since 1943. At the time of the crash, Van Zandt was listed as residing in Roanoke.
The crew, mostly American veterans of World War II, had boarded the plane in Shanghai and were bound for New York, via Tokyo, Anchorage and Minneapolis, according to documents.