On the sunny afternoon of Oct. 24, 1947, residents of the small town of Tropic near the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park looked skyward and saw black smoke trailing from a low-flying aircraft.
The United Airlines DC-6 failed to clear a rise in the terrain and crashed while its pilot tried to make an emergency landing at the Bryce Canyon Airport. All 48 passengers, the pilot and crew of three were killed in the Oct. 24 accident.At the time it was the second-worst air disaster in U.S. aviation history. It's still the worst aviation accident in Utah history.
On Friday and Saturday, the tragic event will be solemnly remembered when family members of those killed gather at the crash site. Others interested in the sad and historic event will also gather at Bryce Canyon this weekend. It will be like a funeral 50 years late.
Nancy Boonstra, Galena, Ill., whose mother and brother died in the crash, has been instrumental in preserving the memories of those who perished and the historical importance of the crash. She says her efforts bring her "some closure" to the tragedy.
"I hope there is closure for others, too," she said, referring to this weekend's memorial.
Bryce Canyon National Park Superintendent Fred J. Fagergren has also taken a special interest in the tragedy and has made efforts to preserve its significance. His father, a ranger at Zion National Park, served as a security officer at the crash site.
The aircraft was the first DC-6 to crash from a new fleet of 80 planes owned by United Airlines. When Flight 608 was about 22 miles away from Bryce Canyon National Park en route from Los Angeles to Chicago, Capt. E.L. McMillen radioed that there was fire in a baggage compartment and that he needed to make an emergency landing. Five minutes later another message was heard from the pilot.
"We may get down and we may not. Best place we can . . ."
The radio went silent. It was 12:27 p.m.
Remains of the victims were placed in canvas containers and transported to Richfield where they were placed on the National Guard Armory gymnasium floor for the grim task of identification. However, identification was difficult. Bodies were badly burned.
Area residents helped with the process. Clothing, jewelry, wallets and identification papers were care-fully sorted.
Dentists throughout the country were also involved in identification. Dental x-rays were still new at the time so Richfield dentist A. L. Poulson relied on fillings, bridgework and missing teeth to match victims with dental records. He used the experience to later write a guideline book that still serves as the basis for much of today's dental forensics.
Some identification was also determined through fingerprints on file at the Salt Lake City Federal Bureau of Investigation office.
Neal S. Magelby, a Richfield mortuary owner, placed victim remains in caskets that were shipped to relatives for burial. One body that couldn't be identified was buried in an unmarked grave in the Richfield City Cemetery.
It was also the first time that a crashed airliner was transported back to a manufacturer and reassembled to determine the cause of the crash. Aviation investigators determined a line which transferred fuel from one tank to another overflowed through a vent. The fuel was ignited by a cabin heater.
The investigation into the fatal crash provided information that helped prevent similar accidents. It was reported by United Airlines that its remaining fleet of DC-6s were recalled after the accident and design changes were made.
For years there were no markers in tribute to those who died. However, a placard designed by the Bryce Canyon Historical Association will now be erected at the site. Furthermore, a history of the fatal crash can be read at the park's library, thanks to Fagergren and park archaeologists.