The wreckage of a Northwest Airlines plane has been located 51 years after it crashed into the side of a mountain in the forbidding Alaska wilderness with 30 people aboard.
Two searchers retrieved parts of the Northwest DC-4 on a glacier near the north side of Mount Sanford in Wrangells St. Elias National Park during an expedition last weekend.
Flight 4422, a charter plane with four piston-driven engines, disappeared shortly after taking off from Anchorage on the evening of March 12, 1948, after a refueling stop. Six crew members and 24 passengers died. The passengers, all seamen from an oil tanker operated by the Overseas Tankship Corp. of New York, were being ferried home to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Kevin McGregor, one of the men who discovered the wreckage Saturday, said the discovery brought a sense of "closure" for the families who lost relatives in the accident.
"It was a commemorative historical project, and we are doing it to correct history so that it remembers properly 30 people that lost their lives," McGregor said.
McGregor and Marc Millican obtained unanimous assent from as many relatives as they could trace to try to find the wreckage, the men said. They took 11 items from the scene to positively identify it, including an engine plate identifying the manufacturer, aluminum marked with a Northwest Airlines identification number, a piece of fiberglass and a metal table knife printed with the airline logo.
The two men would not discuss whether they had found human remains, but Sgt. Rodney Dial, an Alaska state trooper, was quoted by news services as confirming that a single body part had been found. State troopers attempted to reach the scene but were hampered by poor weather.
There was no radar coverage of the area in 1948, but the Northwest crew checked in by radio at two navigation points as the plane flew east from Anchorage, according to official reports from the time.
The plane never checked in again. According to the accident investigation report, the plane crashed into the west slope of Mount Sanford at approximately 9:14 p.m., 62 minutes after taking off.
Nearby residents reported a fire that started about 11,000 feet up the side of 16,028-foot Mount Sanford, about 180 miles east of Anchorage, that slid down the mountain several thousand feet.
No helicopters were capable of rescue work at that time. Officials apparently decided not to attempt to remove the bodies by a long and treacherous dog-sled trip or by landing ski planes and climbing the icy mountain.
The next day, the wreckage was spotted by a DC-3, at 8,500 feet on the west slope of Mount Sanford--23 miles from the center line of the usual airway. "The point of impact, approximately 2,500 feet above the wreckage, was observed to be a section of smoke-blackened snow and ice. From this point there was a clearly defined fire-path where the burning wreckage had fallen down the almost perpendicular wall of the mountain," the Civil Aeronautics Board report said.
The scene of the accident was inaccessible from ground or air, the report said.
Millican, of Anchorage, first began researching the crash in 1988 when he started flying 747s for Northwest Airlines. In 1994, while in the officers' club on Air Force duty in Travis, Calif., his friend McGregor, of Colorado, mentioned the story. The two men were both then majors in the Air Force reserves.
They made several attempts to find the site and then, in 1997, became confident they had located the glacier, but were not able to confirm it for certain until recently.
"When we came across the wreckage and finally identified it, after all the research we had done, it was unbelievable," he said.
The exact location of the find is not being made public by the men or the National Park Service. The men have since been in touch with relatives of the passengers.
Staff researcher Nancy Shiner contributed to this report.