This article appeared in the Jamestown Post Journal on December 27th, 2015. Written by Deb Everts.
Tragedy in Napoli
Author with local ties chronicles 1951 Napoli Plane Crash
NAPOLI - When a seasoned journalist came to the area to research his family's genealogy, he stumbled upon a story he'd never heard of and no family member had spoken about. That story topped national headlines in December 1951.
While visiting relatives, Tim Lake stood on top of Hoxie Hill in the town of Napoli, looking out over the farmland when his uncle, Randy Shenefiel, joined him and said, "You know, you oughtta look into that plane crash that happened over across the valley up on that hill. I think your grandfather was called in to go up on the mountain and help rescue some of the survivors and recover the dead."
Flabbergasted, Lake said he had no idea of such an event. He had spent a lot of time with his grandfather, the late David Shenefiel, but he never told him the story about the crash. His grandfather was a farmer, town of Napoli highway superintendent and a bus driver for Randolph Central School. As highway superintendent, he played a small role in the plane crash rescue. When Lake started looking into the event, he discovered an incredible true story that involved his family and neighbors in the Napoli community.
This inspired Lake to write "Hang On and Fly: A Post-War Story of Plane Crash Tragedies, Heroism, and Survival," a historical, nonfiction book accounting the most extraordinary year in American passenger aviation history. The story chronicles the fateful event on Dec. 29, 1951, when Continental Charters Flight 44-2 crashed in the town of Napoli, taking the life of 26 passengers and leaving 14 survivors trapped on Bucktooth Ridge in the snow for two nights.
Because his family is well-known in the area, Lake said he had good access to information from all the family groups involved in the rescue. He was also able to interview the head stewardess, Pearl Ruth Moon, who was on the plane that night and, at 83, still remembered the events very clearly. The Bryant family living in the valley at the time of the crash, provided him with information and photographs, along with their mother's diary that detailed nearly everything.
According to Lake, by all accounts, Ruby Bryant was a hero and helped the survivors get out when they needed it most, but she was never given any credit. She was suffering from breast cancer all through the ordeal and died a year later.
Lake said Robert Lilienthal of East Randolph was the first to get to the top of the ridge to help the survivors. He had a little camera with him and snapped a picture of the survivors huddled under a parachute umbrella. As far as he knows, there is only one surviving photograph and, through Lilienthal's family, he was able to obtain the photo.
"This plane crash in Napoli was unique because it presented the longest stranding of a large group of airplane-crash survivors in North America without rescue, and it's never been eclipsed," he said.
Lake said the pilots made a terrible decision that was the main factor causing the plane crash. Five hours late and in a hurry, they didn't have adequate training or adequate charts. Bound for Buffalo, they took off from Pittsburgh thinking they could get there quickly by flying a visual flight, which means fly low and keep an eye on the ground. He said they were flying through a bad storm as well, and nobody could find the crash because of the foggy weather.
"If the pilots had flown an instrument flight, they would have taken a slightly different route and they would have been high enough in the sky to avoid the mountains," he said.
According to Lake, 1951 was the pivotal year that changed passenger aviation in America. For the first time in American history, more people were flying for travel than were riding trains. It was right after World War II when surplus airplanes were available, pilots had come home with nothing to do, and the federal government was pushing aviation and pumping money into airports.
"Suddenly, in 1951, there were planes dropping from the sky three, four times a month killing people nearly every time," he said. "The headlines were incredible to the point where people were terrified to fly on an airplane. By the end of 1951, the federal government finally stepped in to stop the problem because it was causing an issue for the country's progress in aviation."
Lake said there were two tiers of airlines "major" and "nonscheduled." The majors had Delta, TWA, Pan Am, and Eastern, which flew on schedule and had to follow very strict guidelines and safety regulations. The nonscheduled airlines were small companies on shoestring budgets aided by the federal government. These companies were utilizing war surplus airplanes and retraining pilots from WWII. They were the first budget airlines in America to serve the smaller airports around the country.
"The standard back then was, 'If you don't publish a schedule of flights, then you don't have to follow all the rules and regulations of the majors,'" he said. "They were trying to make it cheaper and easier for small airlines to start up."
According to Lake, the plane that crashed in Napoli was owned by a nonscheduled airline based in Miami. He said the cost of a ticket was about a third of a ticket on one of the major airlines, which made them popular.
"Hang On and Fly" was released in October 2015 and is available at TimLakeBooks.com, Amazon, Blio, B & N, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords. Lake is currently researching another historical, nonfiction book.
Earlier in his career, Lake wrote for The Post-Journal, The Buffalo News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thousand Islands Life. He has worked for CBS and NBC-affiliated television stations in Charleston, Houston and, most recently, the primary news anchor for NBC's WCAU-TV, Philadelphia. Lake was inducted into the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame, in 2011. He makes his home outside of Philadelphia with his wife and three children.