Service Marks 50 Year Anniversary of Continental Airlines Flight 11 Crash
UNIONVILLE - Families and friends gathered in Unionville over the weekend at a 50 year remembrance service for Continental Airlines Flight 11.
It has come to be known as "the lost flight." The Flight 11 tragedy was the first ever commercial fight in the United States to be taken down by a suicide bomber after disappearing off radar detection in Northern Missouri on May 22, 1962.
There hasn't been much talk of the flight since the crash 50 years ago. There have not been many reports and there had not been any memorials until the crash caught the attention of a young aviation enthusiast in New Zealand.
Andrew Russell came across the crash report for Continental Airlines Flight 11 in 2002. His curiosity about the flight itself and the lack of information available led him to start a blog about the flight. Soon after several people commented on Russell's blog including families of victims and Duane Crawford, a Unionville historian. The results of Crawford and Russell's efforts led to a memorial in Unionvillein 2010, and a 50 year service in 2012. Unionville residents and families of the victims chipped in to fly Russell from New Zealand to Unionville for the memorial service this weekend.
On a stormy night, May 22, 1962, 37 passengers and 8 crew members boarded Continental Airlines Flight 11 in Chicago with a plan to land in Kansas City. Just before takeoff, a stewardess opened up the plane's door to let on two late passengers. One of those was Thomas Doty, the man the FBI say caused this tragedy. Doty was a disgruntled businessman who was having financial troubles and just before the flight he purchased $300,000 in insurance. Experienced and well respected Captain Fred Gray kept in contact with towers that night to route his plan around storms. Just one minute after Gray's last communication, flight 11 dropped off the radar. Original reports said storms had caused the crash.
Gray's family members new better. "My Dad said, there is no way Fred would ever fly into weather like that. He was a great man, he loved his passengers and he did everything he could to save them," said Bob Gray, Fred's nephew.
FBI investigators determined Doty placed six sticks of dynamite in the rear bathroom of the plane to blow it up.
Ron Cook and his father were the first to come upon the wreckage that night. "It was dark and we couldn't see, the plane was just a big black hole. Just the fuselage laying there and the wings. We could hear moaning, that was all. Dad said, we've got to get help, and we took off down our road to the South," said Cook.
The man Cook heard moaning was the sole survivor of the flight. He went on to die just a few hours later from internal injuries.
Although there hadn't been much talk publicly since the crash, it has still weighed heavily on the families of those affected.
"It's something that's always on your mind, it's not something you ever forget when something that tragic happens. Every holiday, every time that the anniversary came up. Anything like that was particularly hard," said Gerry Weil whose husband died in the crash.
Over the weekend, families had a chance to go out to the field where the plane crashed.
"Having this memorial service, it's a wonderful thing. I was 26 when my husband was killed, and Frank was 15 months old. It was always in the back of my mind sometime before I died, I wanted a chance to come out here," said Gerry Weil.
Gerry's son Frank was only one at the time his father died. While he said he never thinks he will find closure to an event like this, the service helped a lot. "It gives more of a connection to what happened. It's one thing to see the pictures and the newspaper reports or to hear the stories. It's another thing to be here and to have a sense that you're actually at where it happened. It's not just something that happened somewhere else," said Frank.
In addition to helping some of the families let go, the memorial service helped others to reconnect.
"My cousin here, for some reason we spoke once in the last 40 years or so. I hadn't seen him since I was a boy. We began talking because of this event, so we've reconnected, and also my uncle's daughter. We've reconnected with her too. The family was kind of splintered/scattered around, and now we're all getting back together and realizing we have a lot in common, a lot we should share with each other. It's a wonderful thing," said Craig Gray, Captain Fred Gray's nephew.
One family hopes to plant a tree in the field to mark the crash spot. Weil's 11-year-old daughter also said she hopes to hold another memorial service in Unionville on the 100 year anniversary.