By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The plane had just left Anchorage. According to news reports, it struck a cliff face 11,000 feet up the 16,000-foot mountain, burst into flames and tumbled 3,000 feet down the mountainside, where it came to rest in an inaccessible area 40 miles from the tiny outpost of Gulkana, about 200 miles northeast of Anchorage.
The terrain was so inhospitable that even locals avoided the area, according to news reports. The wreckage was spotted during an air search, but officials declared that there was no chance of survivors. Within days, it was covered by snow, and it vanished.
In 1994, McGregor and Millican, both airline and retired Air Force pilots who were intrigued by the mystery and by fanciful accounts that the plane carried Chinese gold, began searching for the wreckage, McGregor said. They had to fly in and then hike 16 miles to reach the site.
They failed to reach the spot in 1994. McGregor got there in 1995 but found nothing. They went back in 1996 and again found nothing. They returned in 1997 and discovered a bent piece of metal that bore the serial number of one of the engines, "the holy grail of identification," he said.
They went back in 1998 and again in 1999, when they found the arm. McGregor recalls that it was in the evening. The arm was partly buried in icy gravel and mold. McGregor said he had been instructed not to disturb any human remains. So they left the arm and returned to their base.
"It's pretty weird," McGregor said.
The arm and a ring that turned out to belong to another victim were retrieved by Alaska state police a few days later. The effort began to make an identification.
For nine years, teams of pathologists, forensic experts and fingerprint technicians in Canada, Alaska and elsewhere in the United States worked with the latest fingerprinting and DNA techniques while genealogists sought to track down relatives of the victims.
At first, neither good prints nor DNA could be obtained from the arm, McGregor said.
Eventually, with the help of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville and Professor Edward Robinson of GWU, the team was able to extract usable DNA and to "rehydrate" the fingers on the hand to get good prints.
Robinson made a stone copy of the prints, which were matched to a set of Van Zandt's print on record. The only Van Zandt relative the team could find was his distant cousin, Maurice Conway, whose DNA matched Van Zandt's, team genealogist Chriss Lyon said.
"I had mixed feelings, but I was delighted to be part of this project," Conway told the team yesterday by phone from Ireland. "I learned a lot about my own family, but I felt like I was walking, sleeping and talking with the dead."