Buried at the Bottom of the World
When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
Courtesy Lopez Family
(Page 2 of 6)
Robbins, standing between the pilots on the airplane’s flight deck, felt a slight bump. He heard LeBlanc and Kearns pour on full power.
And then, nothing. He felt like he was floating. He felt a shaking. His shoulder. He looked up; he was kneeling in snow 20 yards from the cockpit, and the flight engineer, Bill Warr, was standing over him. “We’re all screwed up, Robbie,” Warr said. “I think we’re the only ones alive.”
Robbins looked around, dazed. Snow was blowing and whipping. To his right he saw the navigator, Ensign Max Lopez. In front of them was radioman Wendell Hendersin. Both men were dead. Much of the airplane was burning, the flames crackling and popping in the wind and snow. Robbins stood up—he seemed okay—and he and Warr made their way toward the burning remains of the flight deck. Kearns was crawling in the snow, his shoulder dislocated, his arm fractured.
Suddenly, a voice: “Get me out of here!” Kearns leapt up and ran into the flames, where he tried to unbuckle LeBlanc, who was hanging upside down in his seat, but couldn’t get him out. Warr and Robbins rushed in, pushed Kearns aside, and dragged the burning LeBlanc from the wreckage.
Over the next few minutes, the rest of the crew showed up. Caldwell was uninjured but disoriented. Fred Williams, another flight engineer, was lying by the fire, his back broken, blood oozing from his mouth and nose. Owen McCarty, the airplane’s photographer, crawled from the largely intact aft section with a severe gash on his head.
A lifetime later, Robbins is at a loss to explain how they coped. But they were young and strong, and they had been through a lot already. They went to work.
The airplane was mostly in three main pieces. The wings had come off almost intact. Twenty feet from the wings lay the burning flight deck. Forty feet from that lay most of the fuselage and tail section. The men weren’t sure what had happened, but in a 1950 account in Flying magazine, Kearns wrote that they “decided that the plane’s light impact on a ridge had ruptured one of the fuel cells. Fumes from the leaking gasoline must have been ignited by an electrical charge or by hot exhaust gases,” causing George One to explode in flight.
The crew slid Williams onto a piece of decking, erected a lean-to, and made him as comfortable as possible without moving him. They tucked LeBlanc into a sleeping bag in the tail section and hunkered down with him. Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins shared a single blanket; they rotated, each one getting some time in the warmth of the center position. Time passed. When the snowfall eased, Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins ventured out. Williams was dead. Who would be the next?