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Kin of 2 victims aims to keep memories of Bryce crash alive

Six years ago, Nancy Boonstra walked to the center of an open field near here and stood. She was looking for something. A plaque, maybe. A special feeling. Nothing.

Her mother and small brother died here in 1947, along with 51 others in what was then the second-worst air disaster in U.S. history. She found nothing, not the special feeling she had expected or the hug she so desperately wanted as she stood there with her arms out.

She said she knew at that point what she had to do.

"I had to find the other families. They needed to know everything I needed to know. Fifty-three people died and nothing has been done. Nothing," said Boonstra from Galena, Ill.

This past weekend, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, she brought together some of the surviving families and residents from nearby towns who remembered the crash. They met at Ruby's Inn near the site of the crash.

For Boonstra, it was another step in the healing process.

"None of us will ever forget. All we can do, as we have been, is go on with our lives. But there were things I had to know," she said.

"I always worried, did my mother and brother suffer? What I've learned since I started this is that they did not. I can't tell you how comforting it is to know that," she told the group.

United Airlines Flight 608 left Los Angeles for Chicago at 9:23 a.m. on Oct. 25, 1947. The plane was a new DC-6, one of 35 delivered to United Airlines six months earlier. It was considered, at the time, the safest aircraft flying.

During the flight, one of the tanks was overfilled during a routine fuel transfer. A design flaw allowed the extra fuel to flow along the bottom of the fuselage directly into an air scoop used as a source of heat for the cabin area. The fuel ignited.

When the fire was detected, the closest emergency landing field was at Bryce Canyon.

At 12:21 p.m. the pilot reported a fire in the baggage area. At 12:26 p.m. he reported he would try to land the plane at the "best place we can." One minute later he radioed, "We may make it. Think we have a chance, approaching a strip."

The plane crashed 1,500 yards short of the runway. There were no survivors. At first it was reported 52 people died, but through Boonstra's research it was learned that one passenger was pregnant, putting the total at 53.

The only U.S. air crash worse at the time was an Eastern Airlines DC-4 that crashed six months earlier, killing 53. The Bryce Canyon crash remains the worst air disaster in Utah history. It was also the first DC-6 to crash, the first crash in a national park and it was the first time airplane parts were gathered and reconstructed to try and determine the cause of the crash.

The fact that baggage was found 26 miles from the crash site led some investigators to theorize that the intensity of the fire had burned a hole in the underside of the plane. One eyewitness report said the belly of the plane was red from the heat. Boonstra believes all of the passengers died from the fire and heat before the crash. Another theory is the pilot and co-pilot died before they could bring the plane in. Yet another says structural failure caused by the fire brought the plane down.

Several residents from Tropic, like Ted Johnson and Bertell Barton, saw the low-flying plane with a trailing tail of white smoke, heard the explosion and rushed to the site.

They were amazed at the absolute devastation at the crash site. When it got dark, they recalled, residents circled their cars and turned headlights for light. To keep animals from the bodies, they kept fires burning around the crash site all night.

J.L. Crawford recalls the crash site was larger than a city block and resembled a burned-over trash dump. His wife, Fern, said the remoteness of the area made recovery efforts difficult.

"I worked in a store in Tropic and we sold out of all the warm clothing we had. It was cold, very cold," she said.

The group that met Friday, some from as far away as Sweden and Hawaii, heard a report from Bret Jimison of Ohio, who helped locate family members and researched the cause of the crash. Several local residents also spoke.

On Saturday, about 50 people went to the crash site and airport. Included in the group were seven religious leaders from different denominations, including an American Indian from the Ute tribe. The field where the crash occurred is an ancient campsite for Anasazi Indians.

Boonstra said a plaque will be placed at the Bryce Airport, as well as a number of pictures and a statue. The statue is currently being created.

"I don't want people to come here and feel nothing like I did. I want them to be remembered," she said.

Killed on the flight were a number of prominent people, including four doctors, the managing editor of Look magazine, the past president of Montgomery-Ward and Co., and the star halfback for the Chicago Cardinals.