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From my second-story window I see bright white ice against blue sky: Medicine Bow Peak, the glacier-topped highest point in the Snowy Range mountains. Mostly when I look at it, I ponder when I’ll head up to the Range next to ski or hike or canoe in an alpine lake. Rarely do I think about the aviation disaster that happened up there before I was born. But that’s what many folks around Laramie see when the peak is socked in with autumn clouds, looking like it did on October 6, 1955.
That’s when United Airlines Flight 409 slammed into the mountain, killing all 66 people on board. That number includes the pilot Clinton C. Cooke, Jr., first officer Ralph D. Salisbury, Jr., flight attendant Patricia D. Shuttleworth, two infants, 19 members of the military and five members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Mel Duncan, a local history buff, worked tirelessly to document the incident. Thanks to his published report “Flight 409: Tragedy on Medicine Bow Peak” and his almost single-handed lobbying of the U.S. Forest Service and various government officials, a memorial marker to the victims stands near the scene.
Duncan joined the Wyoming Air Guard in 1948, while still in high school. During his military career he served as an airplane mechanic, crew chief and flight engineer. Upon his retirement in 1991 he spent much of his time at his cabin in the Range, researching and writing books about the Medicine Bow National Forest.
For “Flight 409,” Duncan collected news accounts, official reports, photographs and eye witness testimonies, piecing together the accident and recovery efforts. He gave well-attended presentations based on his research to Wyoming historical organizations. He led interested groups on hikes to take a closer but not too close look at the crash site. I talked with him in May 2000, a year before the memorial plaque was placed. We spoke extensively about the accident, which when it occurred was the worst in U.S. commercial aviation.
The DC-4 aircraft took off from Chicago in the early morning and landed in Denver at 5:51 a.m., more than an hour late because of bad weather. It was bound for Salt Lake City, then on to San Francisco. The customary route would take the flight north into Wyoming then west at the radio beacon at the tiny town of Rock River, safely around the Snowy Range. The pilot was familiar with the route, having flowing it 45 times in the previous year. But this time, he took a shortcut directly over the mountains, some 25 miles off course. The DC-4 was not pressurized and was attempting to fly well over the recommended altitude. The plane failed to clear the 12,013 foot peak by about 75 feet, and crashed. At approximately 7:30 a.m., 66 people lost their lives.
Randy Wagner is a photographer who at the time worked for the Laramie Daily Bulletin-Boomerang. He explained why non-pressurized planes were expected to route around the mountains, not over them: “All transcontinental air travel of that era, starting with air mail service in the 1920s, was routed through the gap in the Rocky Mountain chain that exists between the Snowy Range and the Wind River Range to the north. This is the same gap, the Great South Pass, that was used by all the historic trails, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lincoln Highway to cross the Continental Divide.”
Flight 409 was reported missing about an hour after it failed to report at Rock Springs. With no radar at that time to search for civilian aircraft, a visual air search first flew the planned route, and then flew the shortcut route. The remains of Flight 409 were spotted at 11:40 a.m. scattered across the face of the cliff.
Arriving early on the scene was a group from the Laramie newspaper. R.S. “Tommy” Thompson was among them, and a few years ago I talked to him about those events. He was working in the paper’s composing room when he was pulled off the job to drive a four-wheel drive vehicle up the mountain, taking with him Bill Logan, who was on his first day as editor of the paper.
“We were just about the first people up there,” Thompson told me. “As we got close to the crash site we were stopped at Mirror Lake and told we couldn’t go up. We said we were from the paper and needed pictures.”
According to Thompson, the authorities told them they could only go up the mountain if they took with them two Catholic priests from Rawlins, Wyoming, to the west of the mountains. The priests wanted to administer last rites to the crash victims.
Thompson and his party could see scattered landing gear, plane tires and other debris from their position at Lookout Lake. Then it was time to head up Medicine Bow Peak toward the bulk of the wreckage. “We were carrying cameras and equipment and helping the priests up,” said Thompson. “There was six or seven inches of snow and it was pretty tough going. I was glad I was in good shape.
“As we went up we could see the wreckage up above us. The main part of the fuselage was on a high ridge, and that is where most of the bodies were.”
Duncan’s report adds to the description of the scene. He wrote, “The first apparent thing was the gigantic smudge on the rock cliff high above the base camp. As one moved toward the base of the mountain the first portion of the aircraft to come into view was a portion of the main landing gear and two tires that had rebounded some 1500 feet from the point of impact.”
Laramie resident Jim Swinford was working a timber mill at a spot in the forest called Fox Park, and recalls being among the earliest wave of volunteers to reach the crash site. He’d only recently returned from a long tour with the Marine Corps during the Korean War. “The weather on Medicine Bow peak is always terrible,” he said. “The higher up you get, the more the wind blows.” Swinford said he helped transport some remains but did not stay long. “I didn’t like what I saw,” he said.
Fresh snow on the ground combined with the steepness of the crash site and the loose talus slope made conditions very difficult. Carbon County Sheriff John Terrill was one of the first authorities to secure the scene. As it became obvious there were no survivors to rescue, Terrill established a base camp about a mile down the slope. Work teams included United Airlines employees and both civilian and military authorities. But only the most experienced mountaineers were able to climb the nearly sheer face of the peak to recover the bodies of victims.
With a system of ropes and pulleys, alpinists from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Club, the University of Wyoming and the University of Colorado secured remains in body bags and brought them down to the base camp. From there, body bags were loaded onto pack animals and carried to the nearest structure, the University of Wyoming Science Camp, about six miles away. From that temporary morgue, remains were taken in to Laramie. Compounding the difficulty, a train had derailed near Laramie, meaning a delay in transporting recovered remains. Meanwhile, curious onlookers in small private aircraft buzzed the sky over the area, lucky themselves not to be victims of the conditions that brought down Flight 409.
After identifiable remains were removed, Duncan told me, it was necessary to dislodge the section of the DC-4’s tail that had been secured by ropes where it balanced in the rock wall above the crash area. For the task, the guardsmen used Howitzers to “shoot the mountain down,” he said.
The other reason for the shelling was to protect the site from looters and curiosity seekers. Many pieces of the aircraft too small or heavy to recover were left on the mountain. The effort to obliterate wreckage remains with the Howitzers was not entirely successful. So to discourage curiosity seekers, the area was napalmed by seven F-80 fighter aircraft, with two strikes each, Duncan reported. At the time of Duncan’s report in the mid-1990s, at least two of the Pratt and Whitney R-2000 engines were still at the site and readily identifiable in glacial pools, although nearly impossible to reach.
The Civil Aeronautics Board (now the FAA) investigation showed all engines were working at the time of the impact and could not tell whether the crew had been incapacitated at the time of impact. The plane did not hit the mountain head on but appeared to be banking upward when it struck Medicine Bow Peak. The board’s final ruling, according to Duncan, was that “either a shortcut was being attempted or that the crew was incapacitated and the aircraft was flying without assistance.” He added, “The board was reluctant to blame the pilot, but nevertheless stated that he must have purposefully deviated from the prescribed flight route for reasons unknown.” Duncan speculated that the pilot was caught unaware by the turbulent winds near the mountain, his vision hampered by a shroud of clouds hiding the peak.
The area of the crash site is near a popular recreation area in the Range, not too far horizontally, anyway, from a paved two-lane highway. Many people go there to hike the mountain and look for pieces of aircraft. Now that the crash site is more than 50 years old, it is federally protected and no one may legally remove pieces of the wreckage. But people who wish to pay their respects to the victims of UAL Flight 409 can save themselves the steep, rocky hike and instead visit the memorial, positioned just up the highway at the Miner’s Cabin turnout, along the flight path of the aircraft.
Mel Duncan once told me that his interest in Flight 409 had been rekindled after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 aboard. That act of terrorism and the trials of its perpetrators had gotten him thinking about the families of Flight 409. He felt it was important to get some sort of memorial in the mountains to comfort the families and mark the event for future generations.
After several years of negotiations, he received the go-ahead from the forest service to place the plaque. The inscription reads “In Memory of the 66 passengers and crew that perished on Medicine Bow Peak October 6, 1955.” Duncan’s wife, Norma, said that her husband found the perfect spot for the memorial marker, on a large quartzite boulder with a flat face. He purchased a brass plaque with his own funds. “We spent a day drilling to get that plaque into the rock. We went through 18 drill bits,” Norma recalled.
A dedication ceremony took place on August 25, 2001, with 132 people in attendance. Many of those people were families of the victims and signed the guest book with notes of grateful appreciation to Duncan.
Mel Duncan died on October 11, 2007, 52 years to the day that recovery efforts concluded on the mountain.