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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Project Remembrance's wreck finders salvage memories at air crash sites

September 23, 2007|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

It was 3 o'clock on a June morning in 1964, when 8-year-old Jeff Corder awoke in his family's Covina home to the sobs of his mother and grandmother.

"They were sitting at our dining room table, listening to the radio," Corder said. "I remember standing there frozen, hearing the radio announcer saying, 'It is now confirmed that the pilot was indeed Rex C. Corder.' "

"It was like a dagger in my heart," said Corder, now 52 and living in Las Vegas. The day before that fateful radio report -- June 7, 1964 -- his father and two friends had died when his father's Beechcraft plane, en route from Reno to La Verne, crashed in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Searchers recovered the bodies of Rex Corder, 39, and his two passengers, but the shattered plane remained in San Bernardino National Forest.

That wasn't enough for Jeff Corder.

"I needed closure," he said.

Last month, more than four decades after the crash, he got what he needed: He and his grandson, Chris, hiked to the crash site.

They were led there by a group of wreck finders, headed by G. Pat Macha, 61, a Mission Viejo resident and retired history and geography teacher at Hawthorne High School. A few years ago, his team started Project Remembrance, helping family members place memorials at crash sites. The project is part of a larger plan to put stone markers at places where military men and women lost their lives in noncombat missions. The project is sponsored in part by the Western Museum of Flight in Hawthorne.

"We search crash sites for the same reason people search for shipwrecks," Macha said. "They are historical sites that need protection. I ask people not to remove anything when they visit crash sites, but when it's family, they're entitled."

In 1965, the year after Rex Corder's plane crashed, Macha was 19 and working at a YMCA camp at Barton Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains when he stumbled across the crashed plane. He took photographs and marked down the longitude and latitude.

"I remember thinking just a little higher, or just a little farther west, and he would have made it. . . . But it wasn't until I met Jeff and saw his dad's picture [that I] realized how devastating this was for Jeff and his family." The official report attributed the crash to controller error.

Thereafter, on his weekends and vacations, Macha began to look through government reports and newspaper clippings to find accounts of plane crashes, military and civilian, in California. In time, his sleuthing hobby became a guidebook, "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Desert of California 1909-2002."

One of the earliest California crashes, in March 1909, was that of a hot-air balloon in the San Gabriel Mountains. The sightseeing balloon carrying five passengers drifted from Pasadena into the mountains and crashed on snow-covered Strawberry Peak.

The pilot and his passengers hiked to a nearby ranch for help. The gondola was visible on the mountainside for decades, but fires and the ravages of time eventually erased the last trace.

Macha, whose detective work of pinpointing a crash site is partly an obsession and partly about doing a good deed for bereaved families, has visited more than 400 of the 1,200 sites in his book.

"Unlike a car crash, where the wreck is removed and forgotten, many plane wrecks are still there," Macha said.

Several relatives of the crash victims, including Jeff Corder's family, have installed personal memorial plaques at the sites. Macha started his memorial mission by burying metal canisters at the sites of nearly a dozen crashes. Each canister holds lists of crew members' names and ages, photos and copies of newspaper clippings and military reports that Macha and his team of volunteers have had laminated to preserve them.

He placed the first canister in 1970. Macha was inspired to bury his first "memorial statement" -- a handwritten note in a Tupperware container -- at the spot where, in 1969, a Navy SP-2E Neptune plane crashed in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, killing all seven men onboard.

The Tupperware was happenstance. "That's all I had," Macha said. He found live bombs, which he informed the military about, and some of the crew's personal belongings, including uniform pieces, a flight manual signed by the pilot, shaving kit items and uniform insignia, all left behind for the military to pick up.

The crew had come from the Midwest to train, and a combination of weather and inexperience flying around mountains doomed the flight.

"It just got me. . . . I had to say something, leave something," Macha said.

The first Project Remembrance stone marker will go up next year, commemorating 84 people who died in another Orange County military crash, the county's worst aviation disaster.

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