IN A NIGHTMARE THAT RECURRED for years, Rupert Pratt found himself flying on an airplane, when suddenly the plane fell to pieces and he began falling endlessly into a cold, black void. The nightmare may well have endured because it was based on a real-life incident, itself more terrifying than any dream.
On Feb. 5, 1954, Pratt was a young airman aboard an Air Force transport plane that suddenly, and mysteriously, broke up in midair over Alaska. Seven passengers and three crewmen fell to their deaths, but Pratt and five others—all wearing parachutes—were somehow thrown clear of the splintered, plummeting fuselage. They survived not just the disaster in the air but the bone-chilling days that followed in the wilderness below.
Over the years, Pratt, 63, now a retired elementary school teacher in Scotia, N.Y., wondered about the other survivors but lost hope of seeing them again. "I guess with all the time that's passed, [finding them] seemed a pretty daunting task," he says. But when the 42nd anniversary of the disaster came around in February, Pratt says, "I woke up thinking about it and decided to give it a shot." He was prompted by a Christmas gift from his son Greg, 25—a CD-ROM containing 85 million U.S. phone listings, every phone book in the nation.
The next day, in his Ellenton, Fla., home, Eli LaDuke picked up the phone, and a voice he didn't recognize asked, "Mr. LaDuke, do you recall where you were on Feb. 5, 1954?" LaDuke, 62, a retired electronics engineer, thought for a second before saying the words Pratt had waited so long to hear: "In Alaska, near Mount McKinley." It wasn't long before Pratt had contacted all five of his fellow survivors.
Their doomed journey had begun as they stepped onto a C-47 on that winter day in 1954 for what was to have been a routine 260-mile flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks. There was only one hint that the day might go awry: "This was a real scroungy-looking plane," recalls Huey Montgomery, 63, now a retired logger and strip miner in Evansville, Ind. An hour after takeoff, the flight got rough; the plane went into a dive and then leveled off. Suddenly "there was a loud bang and the engines stopped," Pratt recalls. The fuselage tore apart, and before the plane plunged into a mountain, the six men were sucked out into the frigid sky. "I opened my eyes, and I was about 10,000 feet up," recalls Ed Fox, 65, of Palm Bay, Fla., who retired from the Air Force after 20 years.
Saved by their parachutes—none of the six had ever used one before—each man landed alone. "It was the loneliest time in my whole life," says Ed Olson, 62, a city-development manager in Elkader, Iowa. Eventually, Pratt, Olson and Fox met up and huddled for warmth through the night in the remnants of a parachute, rotating places to give each a turn in the middle. Two bush pilots spotted them the next day and returned with food, coffee and a doctor to attend to their wounds, including frostbite, cuts and bruises. When the weather cleared the following day, the trio were flown out.
Fifteen miles away, up the mountain near the crash site, LaDuke, Montgomery and Bobby Sallis formed a second group. For them, the wreckage became a makeshift camp. Before an Air Force helicopter rescued them, they had no food and endured three days of howling winds and temperatures of 35 degrees below zero. "I was afraid to fall asleep for fear of freezing," says Sallis, 64, a retired Huntsville, Ala., government contracts negotiator.
The six were briefly hospitalized in Anchorage and within two weeks had returned to duty. "Today, they bring in a whole planeload of psychologists after a thing like that," says Fox. "But back then, you fall off your horse, you get back on." They never got together again—that is, until recently, when the reunion Pratt orchestrated took place in Fairborn, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Not surprisingly, they discovered that the experience had left deep scars. Most suffered a chronic fear of flying (only one of the six, LaDuke, had flown to the reunion). Some, like Pratt, suffered nightmares, and all were troubled by the mystery of why the flight ended in disaster. They did not know that the Air Force had prepared an accident report. Says Pratt: "We never really discussed the crash while we were out there or in the hospital. That was part of the problem." Some of the mystery was solved when Keith Betscher, 44, son of the C-47's pilot, Earl, read aloud a 1954 letter to his family from one of his dad's fellow officers. Step by step the writer related how ice built up, the right engine stalled, the plane went into a steep dive, and G-forces literally pulled the aircraft apart. "That letter explained a lot," says Montgomery.
Now that they've reunited, the men have already made plans for the future: a memorial plaque at Wright-Patterson and a newsletter to keep in touch. Nothing, however, is likely to erase their memories. "It never leaves you," says Sallis of the crash. "Every time you hear about a plane crash anywhere, you're reminded. And you wonder: Why did I survive and others didn't? That's always the question."
KATE KLISE in Fairborn
- Kate Klise.