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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Crash Set a New Course

The collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon 50 years ago led to an overhaul of the nation's antiquated air traffic control system.

June 03, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

It took decades for federal officials to install enough equipment and build enough control centers to monitor all high-altitude traffic over the United States. By 1971, airspace above 18,000 feet was reserved for aircraft carrying transponders that were able to communicate a plane's flight number and location to radar installations on the ground.

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Word of the crash reached families of the victims slowly, as what began as a mystery of missing planes hardened into grim reality.

Neil Davis' sister, Beth, 24, was one of two flight attendants on TWA Flight 2. When he learned of the crash, Davis drove all night from his home in Ogden, Utah, to TWA headquarters in Kansas City. Once there, George Levering, a TWA manager, told him: "There is no hope: everyone was killed. Your sister is gone."

Beth Davis, one of five siblings in the tight-knit family from upstate New York, had been only a month away from leaving TWA to accept a Ford Foundation scholarship to study teaching at Cornell University in New York.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 126 words Type of Material: Correction
Air disaster: An article in Saturday's Section A about a 1956 airline collision over the Grand Canyon was accompanied by a list of the nation's deadliest airline accidents. It omitted three crashes, which are shown in bold in the corrected list below.
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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) Ill-fated flight paths
Eleven most deadly airline accidents over the U.S.
*--* Deaths Date Location Airline 273 May 25, 1979 Chicago American 265 Nov. 12, 2001 Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. American 230 July 17, 1996 Off East Moriches, N.Y TWA 217 Oct. 31, 1999 Off Nantucket, Mass. EgyptAir 156 Aug. 16, 1987 Romulus, Mich. Northwest 153 July 9, 1982 Kenner, La. Pan American 144 Sept. 25, 1978 San Diego Pacific Southwest 135 Aug. 2, 1985 Dallas-Ft. Worth Delta 134 Dec. 16, 1960 Staten Is./Brooklyn, N.Y. United/TWA 132 Sept. 8, 1994 Aliquippa, Pa. USAir 128 June 30, 1956 Grand Canyon United/TWA
*--*
*Does not include the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Source: PlaneCrashInfo.com

"I went completely crazy," Davis recalled in a 1994 memoir he wrote about Beth. "I jumped up and ran out of the office and out of the building into the parking lot, not to my car or anywhere in particular, just away."

In Washington, D.C., another Davis sister, Jayne Szaz, didn't realize Beth had been working on the Super Connie and was now missing until she received a call from another brother, Wayne.

"I couldn't sleep I was so stunned," Szaz said. "When the morning came, I went home on the train -- it took me nine hours to go from Washington to central New York state."

After grieving with her parents and siblings over the death of the family's "emotional center" -- Szaz took the first airplane ride of her life to attend a memorial for her sister in Flagstaff, where the remains of TWA Flight 2 passengers are buried. Some United passengers were laid to rest in a common grave at the Grand Canyon cemetery.

The death of Whittier resident James Jang, a chemical engineer for Fluor Corp. also traveling on TWA Flight 2, sent his wife into a deep depression. She was hospitalized two years later in Belmont, Calif., where she received electric shock treatment.

"My mother and my father got into an argument before he left," said Jon Jang, a San Francisco musician who was a little more than 2 years old when his father died. "She didn't want him to go. She never got over that -- to leave in an argument."

When he turned 39, Jon Jang requested letters from his dad's closest friends, who referred to him as "Jimmie," and described a disciplined, intelligent man whose "power of concentration was awesome."

James Jang, a 5-foot, 2-inch former Boy Scout and amateur magician, also had a keen sense of humor: "On a dare, [he] asked a 6-foot blond at a nightclub to dance with him -- she did," wrote his childhood friend Eddy Way.

The accident hit TWA employees particularly hard. They lost 17 colleagues flying as both passengers and crew, including Tom Ashton, an industrial relations supervisor who had recently posed as one of the Andrews Sisters for a company skit. Also on board was Joe Kite, an assistant to the construction director, Kite's pregnant wife and his two daughters. When employees flipped their company calendars to July on the day after the accident, they found a picture of the Grand Canyon.

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Fifty years later, the crash still scars the Grand Canyon.

Wreckage remains scattered on the near-vertical walls of Chuar and Temple buttes, the treacherous canyon so forbidding in 1956 that investigators stayed just long enough to collect the human remains and several aircraft parts. To prevent looting, the National Park Service closed the sites for 20 years. In 1976, park rangers asked the airlines to remove several large pieces, saying tourists "may consider the visible aircraft remains as blight on the natural scenic beauty of the Grand Canyon." Then they reopened the area.

Even so, flash floods that follow summer monsoons continually unearth pieces of wreckage. By some accounts, 40% of the Super Connie remains, along with 85% of the DC-7.

At the TWA site in 1990, hiker Mike McComb found a tan purse containing identification, a TWA schedule, a stamp book, a scarf and several sticks of gum. "It was kind of a time capsule," said McComb, a pilot who has made the strenuous 50-mile journey to the site several times and flies tourists over it daily.

"As I approached the TWA site, there were little teardrops of melted aluminum that had splashed on the canyon," said Driskill, the Flagstaff paramedic, of a recent hike to Temple Butte. "Then I saw solid puddles of melted aluminum spilled down rocks. There were big chunks of aircraft aluminum -- bigger than a person -- buried under boulders."

Family members remain similarly marked by that day.

"The world should benefit in some way from the untimely loss of a worthy person; there should be a trade-off," Jayne Szaz wrote of her sister Beth. "But search as we might, we could find no such meaning in Beth's death."

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