Haunting tragedy - 10 people were killed in ’59 crash of smokejumper plane

2009-06-19T00:00:00Z Haunting tragedy - 10 people were killed in ’59 crash of smokejumper planeBy KATHY HEDBERG Lewiston Tribune missoulian.com
June 19, 2009 12:00 am  • 

GRANGEVILLE, Idaho - It's been decades since two of the worst tragedies on the Nez Perce National Forest took place in the remote wilderness of Idaho County. But the grief in the voices of the witnesses and survivors is still vivid.

"It's painful to recall," said Art Seamans of Lewiston, who was the ranger for the Moose Creek District on June 11, 1979, when a U.S. Forest Service DC-3 airplane crashed in the wilderness, killing 10 people.

"It's not one of our best days."

Twenty years earlier, on Aug. 4, 1959, a Ford Tri-Motor plane crashed into some gasoline barrels while landing at the Moose Creek airstrip and killed two smokejumpers and the Nez Perce Forest supervisor, Alva W. Blackerby, of Grangeville.

"I think about it often," said a thick-voiced Roland M. Stoleson, now living in Ogden, Utah. He is the only living survivor of that crash. "It's hard to talk about."

The 1959 accident happened during a busy fire season. Smokejumpers Gary G. Williams, 23, of West Valley, N.Y., and John A. Rolf, 23, of Buchannan, N.Y., were on a mission into Moose Creek, along with Stoleson, who was the smokejumper foreman at the Grangeville air base. The plane also carried some supplies for the Moose Creek district, and Blackerby rode along to observe the activity. Herbert Culver was the pilot.

Earnest Scott of Riggins was the fire dispatcher at the Fenn Ranger Station.

"I heard the aircraft coming and I stepped out to watch it go by," Scott said. "I knew the forest supervisor, Mr. Blackerby - we called him 'Blackie' - was in the plane. He was going to Moose Creek.

"I went back in my office and maybe 30 minutes or less on the radio I heard this excited voice calling for (fire retardant). When he settled down I found out there was a plane crash and … he (the pilot) ended up in the trees by the ranger station. It was on the ground rolling out and they couldn't stop it before he hit the trees."

Scott got on his radio and ordered assistance from the supervisor's office because communications from Moose Creek were limited.

Blackerby had taken the co-pilot seat, which Stoleson said he usually occupied on such flights. Williams and Rolf were sitting in the back compartment with Stoleson.

"We made our usual flyover Moose Creek to check the wind sock, then went back down the Selway (River) to turn around and go in our final end of the strip itself," Stoleson recalled.

"So we came back in and just as we were setting down there was a strong gust of wind that pushed us ahead into the trees. The pilot knew what was going to happen because he yelled back at us and said, 'We're going to hit.'

"We knew we were in trouble. Then we hit."

At first Stoleson said he thought everything was OK.

But then fire exploded back through the airplane. A tree that had caught on fire also fell on the plane. Stoleson ditched through the open door, but not without being burned on the face and arms.

Williams, who had been sitting under the gas tank of the plane, was burned extensively. He was carried outside and laid on the ground.

"They weren't dead at the time," Stoleson said. Some of the rescuers talked to the injured men and Williams asked one of the smokejumpers, who was a good singer, to sing him a song. Then he died.

Rolf and Blackerby were taken to hospitals where they died a short time later. The pilot, Culver, was also badly burned but survived for several years.

Scott remembers how the incident shook all the employees of the forest.

"It was devastating," he said. "Especially about the forest supervisor. Blackie was well-liked and the fact that these smokejumpers were so young and just starting their careers. It affects every one of us."

On June 11, 1979, Ranger Seamans was awaiting a plane load of seasonal workers and others who were flying into Moose Creek for the summer.

"I was preparing some lesson plans I was going to be teaching" at the weeklong guard school for the new employees, Seamans said. "I was sitting in the office and one of the rangers who was tending the radio said, 'Art, the plane is overdue and the (supervisor's office) is asking us to try to get in touch with them because they hadn't checked in.' We tried to contact them, but got nothing, so I called the supervisor's office and asked them to see if they could get a helicopter coming in."

Seamans remembers that it was a beautiful, sunny day when it slowly began to dawn on them something terrible had happened.

"The next word we got was the fixed wing (aircraft) had located the emergency locator transmitter and it puts out a beep when there's an emergency. He heard that and the helicopter came in from Fenn and they found the tail section of the aircraft floating on the south side of the Selway River."

The searchers also spotted three people sitting on a rock on the south side of the Selway.

Immediately rescuers began to converge on the heavily wooded site.

Seamans said a raft was sent to the scene along with smokejumpers dispatched from Missoula with emergency medical kits because they were unable to land an aircraft nearby.

"In the meantime I climbed in the helicopter and we went back to the site." Originally it had been reported there were three people sitting on the rock beside the river, but when Seamans saw it, there were only two.

"And one of those was Andy Taylor, who was a young man we had hired for the first time to man Selway Falls as an educational contact," Seamans said.

"Andy waved at me - he recognized me. I waved back but there wasn't much else I could do. Turned out he died, perhaps he died about 10 minutes later. The smokejumpers were putting a pressure suit on him, but he was bleeding internally and they couldn't (save him). And that's where he died."

About the same time the search began for the third person who had been spotted on the rock.

Seventeen-year-old Bryant Stringham and his beagle, Beetle, from Cottonwood, told the Lewiston Tribune after the crash that when the plane hit the water "there was no sound. Nothing. Everything was quiet. All you could hear was the water outside the plane."

Stringham, dazed by the impact of the crash, found himself on the river bottom, held there by the current.

Beetle had jumped out of the plane through an open hatch and eventually Stringham worked his way out of the plane and toward the bank.

From there he began hiking toward the ranger station when he encountered Emil and Penny Keck, Forest Service workers who were headed to the crash site with a pack string of horses.

Seamans said since no one had heard from Stringham since the crash, the worst was feared.

But a while later Stringham appeared, riding into the ranger station on one of Keck's horses.

"It was like seeing somebody rise from the dead because we thought Bryant was probably one of those gone," Seamans said. "He was apologizing because his pants were torn."

Ten people lost their lives that day, including Marvin (Whitey) Hachmeister, a respected and experienced backcountry pilot; John Slingerland, the co-pilot; Ronald Hagan; Robert (Andy) Taylor; Donald Easthouse; Patrick McGreevey; Philip Leber; Catherine Hodgin; Robert Cook; and Thomas Terkeurst.

Charles Dietz, along with Stringham, also survived.

It was learned later that an engine on the plane had overheated, causing the pilots to shut it down. Then the other engine blew a piston, which started a fire and caused the propeller to seize. That twisted the engine from the plane's wing.

As it fell from the sky, a photographer from the Spokesman-Review who was backpacking in the area, saw it and snapped an immortal picture.

Hachmeister and Slingerland had tried to land the powerless, unbalanced aircraft in the river at Dry Bar, the only straight and quiet stretch of the plunging Selway River, but fell a few feet short. After the investigation was completed, it was discovered the engines had failed due to maintenance errors.

"It was a horrible way to start out a season," Seaman said. "But we tried to pull it all together. The first job was to find all the victims. We did a lot of searching with helicopter and we had some divers to help retrieve the bodies.

"The last person we found was Whitey. His body had washed in under an overhang and a fisherman found him several weeks later. Everyone else we found within three to four days."

Paul Christensen, who now works for the Moose Creek district, had breakfast with Leber, one of those who died in the crash, only the day before. Leber had just graduated from the University of Idaho and was eager to begin his new career at the Moose Creek district.

Christensen said even today he and others will occasionally find pieces of the wreckage along the banks of the Selway River.

"There's a feeling in your heart of sadness to actually see it," Christensen said.

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