Crash site evokes memories after 35 years | RecordCourier.com
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Crash site evokes memories after 35 years

by Christy Chalmers

At 6:14 p.m. March 3, under an overcast and nearly dark sky, the sack-shrouded bodies of seven persons were carried into the CVIC Hall in Minden, completing the next to last leg of a once-gay journey that began at 10:35 a.m. March 1, in San Jose, Calif.

The bodies were the first to be brought here from the scattered wreckage of a Paradise Airlines propeller-driven Constellation that smashed into storm-wrapped Genoa Peak Sunday afternoon. The airliner carried four crew members and 81 vacationing passengers who had sought a day or so of pleasure on the ski slopes and the Lake Tahoe casinos.

There were no survivors….

–Lead story in the Thursday, March 5, 1964 edition of The Record-Courier

Nothing turns an afternoon breeze cold quite as quickly as approaching the trio of crosses that mark that crash site, and stepping over a pile of that plane’s remnants to get there.

The mix of metal isn’t visible until you’re almost on top of it. The pieces have been placed almost reverently in and around the pile of rocks that makes up the base of this monument to the tragedy.

The place evokes a mixture of emotions. Look to the left for a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe. Look to the right and see a slice of the Carson Valley, where cars crawl along the roads to and from Minden, Gardnerville and the Ranchos.

Look straight ahead and see these three crosses, standing somberly over the site.

…The sheriff said it is taking from 30 minutes to three-quarters of an hour to get each body out of the wreckage area to the waiting refrigerated van.

After the bodies are taken to the CVIC Hall, they are to be identified under the direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation team from Washington, and prepared for burial.

They will then make their final journey to the individual burial sites, scattered across the central portion of the state of California, in communities large and small – among them, San Francisco, Monterey, Richmond, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Martinez…

The ride up is a jaw-clencher over a road that bucks and rolls up a steep hillside. The old Ford’s radiator is burbling furiously when I reach the top – the place with the crosses wedged into the rocks.

One of the crosses is fashioned of regular wood stakes. One is of dead wood. The other is some sort of metal part – a rusted, metal tube with a swivel or a hinged part that forms the crossbar. Dry, dead wildflowers hang on the wood crosses.

The air is eerily quiet. No birds are calling, and the wind in the trees is barely audible.

I step gingerly, afraid to disturb anything, even though everything must have been sifted and shifted by hundreds of people over the years.

A glint down the hillside catches my eye. Moving cautiously over the rocks, more wreckage emerges – long, narrow pieces of what appears to be metal trim, and flat, dented pieces of metal the size of dinner plates. Patches of something that resembles fabric, black on one side and pale green on the other, litter the ground, along with rusting, bent pipe-like fragments that may once have been a frame to something or things.

I briefly consider picking something up, a souvenir, but almost immediately the thought is replaced by a sense that there is something bigger than myself watching this place, guarding it. This is not a place to scavenge.

….It was not until evening, when the light had nearly vanished from the clouded sky, that the seven bodies arrived. They were met by morgue officials, a small crowd of newsmen and photographers, and three relatives. One of these latter was the brother of the co-pilot.

One of the bodies – said to be that of a young woman – was noticeably lighter than the others…

Animal tracks intersperse with the footprints and tire tracks around the area. A series of faint paths seem to crisscross the hillside.

The wreckage is blending slowly into the landscape, but it is still unmistakably airline issue. Fragments protrude half-buried from the dirt. Others are entwined in the alpine shrubs.

Some of the parts might be recognizable to an aviation buff. Rivets still connect several sections.

Some of the metal is shiny. Some is dull gray. Some is rusted. Some is a faded green. All is twisted and punctured.

Down the road maybe 25 yards from the crosses sits another pile of ruins. Across from there, a cross is visible on a rock. A few names and numbers have been scrawled next to this cross – “Charlie Brown 74,” “Rerun 75” – an odd mix of sincere respect and high school graffiti.

The site is strangely devoid of trash. While the road up is not an easy one, it isn’t far from the Upper Kingsbury community.

If the trees could talk, what a horror story they could tell.

…The faces of the posse members who had worked all day at the crash site were weary and sombre.

The relatives who did come to Minden began arriving yesterday, checking into local hotels and motels.

With nothing to do, they wandered aimlessly about the town, or dropped into a restaurant to eat a small amount of food.

Local townspeople were visibly affected by the disaster and the arrival of the mourners. Minden and Gardnerville were quieter than usual; more often than not, when people talked, it was about the crash; and the tones of voices were often subdued….

Sen. Lawrence Jacobsen, a lifelong Carson Valley resident, helped with the rescue effort. He remembers a blinding snowstorm, and huddling on the hill overnight at the site with Bob Pruett, a former county commissioner who lives in Stateline. Rescuers had to contend with several feet of snow, and locating the site took nearly a day.

Back then, Jacobsen was selling ice and oil, and his ice truck was used to transport the bodies, first to Minden and later to Reno, where they were loaded on the train for shipment to their respective home towns.

“It was a very strange feeling,” he said.

Jacobsen, now 78, recalled that the victims suffered similar injuries. He and the other searchers helped connect possessions to people – one woman, he said, was clad in a beautiful fur coat. One of the men was carrying $8,000.

Initially, removal of the crash victims was expected to take almost a week – the sheriff at the time, George Byers, told The Record-Courier the effort would most likely continue through the following Sunday, which would have been March 8, 1964. But Jacobsen says he and other search and rescue members spent the next several weekends at the site, probing the snow drifts to ensure they hadn’t missed anyone.

Jacobsen said the plane’s fuselage and the larger pieces of the wreckage were eventually removed, leaving what remains today. He was interested in hearing about the site. He’s never been back.

——

By March 12, 1964 the next publication date for the then-weekly Record-Courier, the Red Cross had dismantled its disaster headquarters, and the community was returning to its business.

That story focused on the efforts of the Red Cross, but it concluded with a reference to a “fearsome” thought: “What would we do if 85 persons in the Carson Valley were suddenly felled by disaster?”