The evening prior to Halloween, 1941, saw light rain and fog blanket Elgin county and through that murk, American Airlines Flight 1 lost its struggle to remain airborne, hurtling into a field southwest of St. Thomas.
About two hundred yards distant, in a second-floor bedroom of Thompson and Viola Howe’s farmhouse, five-year-old Ken slept peacefully, oblivious to the flaming wreckage visible from his window.
Thompson Howe was in the barn around 10:30 p.m. when the DC-3, christened Flagship Erie and en route to Detroit from Buffalo, hit the ground with such an impact it shook the ground as he completed the chores for the day.
Viola Howe, who witnessed the crash, had expressed concern when she saw the plane circling, apparently in distress. Her fear was the craft would hit the farmhouse.
In fact, there is speculation that perhaps the pilot, at the last minute, did all he could to avoid further loss of life.
All 20 Americans aboard the twin-engine craft perished that night, a stone’s throw north of Third Line, just east of Lawrence Station.
Their deaths made it Canada’s worst airline crash at the time and it remains Elgin’s worst disaster. An almost forgotten chapter in the history of Southwold Township.
Seventy-seven years later, Ken Howe will attend the ceremony to unveil a commemorative plaque to honour those 20 souls, including the Flagship Erie’s captain, David Cooper.
“My dad said there should be a marker put up where all these people lost their lives,” says Ken Howe. “This should have been done 75 years ago.”
Now, thanks to the cooperative effort of the Green Lane Community Trust, the Southwold Township History Committee and S.S.#12 Southwold School Alumni, a permanent marker will be erected in the field at 34986 Third Line, where the DC-3 crashed and burned, mere minutes from the trio of runways at No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal.
It wasn’t long before Ken Howe was exposed to the surreal sight of the charred remains of the DC-3 spread-eagle atop the field, just to the south of the family home. The passengers and crew burned beyond recognition.
“The next day was Halloween and I remember coming down the lane in the old Model A and you could see it still smouldering away. Dad was taking me over to the school.”
That trip to school followed an equally memorable breakfast encounter.
“My dad took me down stairs and it was just full of reporters. My mother got a call from somebody and they had heard on the news this plane had gone down. It was a lady and she asked if there were any survivors. My mom said, ‘I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.’
“The woman asked three times, ‘Are you sure there are no survivors?’ My mom said ‘No’ and this woman said ‘Thank-you, very much.’ Some of her family had been on the plane and were killed.”
That same Model A was nearly pressed into service as a makeshift ambulance minutes after the horrific crash.
“Dad got the car out and went down to see if he could get anybody out. But it was so hot. There was this stewardess (27-year-old Mary Blackley, the only female aboard the flight), she was right at the back of the plane.”
The fatal crash, with the loss of all 20 souls on board, may also be Elgin county’s greatest mystery.
“My mother and some neighbours went to the investigation in Buffalo,” recalls Ken Howe, “but they never did find out what caused the plane to come down. I don’t think it was the pilot’s fault, I think it was a mechanical problem with the aircraft. But that’s only my opinion.”
An opinion shared by the late Robert Schweyer in his book Final Descent: Loss of the Flagship Erie, published in 2015.
He maintains when the recently installed autopilot was disengaged in preparation for the descent into Detroit, it resulted in the jamming of some of the controls.
On the same night Ken Howe slept peacefully, hundreds of miles distant two-year-old David Cooper Jr. likely was tucked safely in bed, never dreaming his father would not return home.
“The pilot’s son looked me up back in the 1990’s and that was the first time I met him,” recalls Ken Howe. “That was in Shedden. He is a wonderful man.”
Ross Burgar, who grew up in Fingal but did not hear about crash until three years ago, is one of the driving forces behind the commemorative plaque.
The chairman of the Southwold Township History Committee says although the tragedy is almost forgotten, it should certainly not be overlooked.
“I do believe it’s a moral obligation of our community to recognize this and let people like David Jr. and other family members of the victims and even community members know that there are still witnesses.”
Burgar stresses although no cause was ever determined, some good did come out of the Flagship Erie crash.
“There was an extensive investigation, both by American agents and Canadian agents, and they never even published a final paper. They explored so many possibilities, including pilot error, weather, a lightning strike and a Canada goose strike.
“They considered everything, but any of the pertinent evidence was destroyed in the fire, so they never were able to determine the cause. They just left it as cause unknown.
“That crash highlighted the need for flight data recorders which are commonplace now. That flight was one of the ones that impacted the move toward developing a black box (flight data recorder).”
Burgar notes there is more to the story than the crash itself.
“There’s the lives of the witnesses and the lives of the families of the victims. They were impacted for life.
“There’s the story of a young woman, a Michigan woman, who was engaged to be married a month after this disaster but her fiance was lost in the crash.”
And, Burgar points to the musical Come From Away, the true story of the 7,000 travellers aboard the 38 planes routed to Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Another story was a headline that caught my attention, ‘Lawrence farm women’s hospitality is praised.’
“There were so many investigators, as well as American Airlines officials and a number of media people, who converged on the tiny town of Lawrence Station and were immersed in a culture they probably had never experienced before, a very hospitable farm culture.
“With the popularity of the play Come From Away, I bet you there are a lot of parallels.”
The commemorative plaque will be unveiled in a ceremony to be held 2 p.m., Sept. 9 at 34986 Third Line, Lawrence Station.
This story also appears in print in the July 17, 2018 issue of The Echo, available in Port Stanley, Sparta and Union.
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