On June 14, 1965 at 11:53 a.m. the people on the outskirts of Whisper felt the ground tremble and heard what they said sounded like a sonic boom.
The people in the town of Whisper, most likely felt and heard nothing.
I got a call from my editor saying “head to Whisper…some kind of catastrophic event…details unknown.” I got in my car and I think I drove the 138 miles in 138 minutes flat. I’m not sure I have ever driven that fast but I wanted to get the “scoop.” Every reporter wants to make a name for himself and I was unapologetically, no exception.
I remember seeing a sign that said “Welcome To The Town Of Whisper.” What I saw after would be burned into my memory like an unfortunate tattoo is burned onto your body when you’re drunk and becomes an event that you wish you could erase later.
In what used to be the town, debris and body parts were strewn as far as I could see. In the distance, thick smoke was bellowing like an angry volcano that had awakened and was hell-bent on revenge for having been disturbed.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
As I walked toward the destruction, it was as if I had stepped into the middle of a war zone. I’m not sure I can find the words to accurately depict what I was seeing. The famous “oh, the humanity” phrase popped into my mind, but I’m not even sure that saying could describe the gravity of the carnage that lay before me.
Sheriff Monson was the high sheriff from the next county and he allowed me into the area with the warning “be careful where you step, don’t touch anything and don’t speak to anybody who isn’t law enforcement.” I asked him if it would be okay to interview a few people about what happened.
He looked at me and said “son, I’m not sure there’s anybody left TO interview.”
I asked him if he knew what happened. He said “as best as we can tell, it was some kind of explosion.”
There was rubble everywhere and I saw pieces of metal, bricks, and cars upside down in what I imagine used to be the street.
I will admit. I had no idea where to even begin. The most dramatic thing I had ever reported on was an angry man who got drunk and threw several kittens down a dry well. When he sobered up, he felt guilty but couldn’t figure any way to get them out, so he started dropping food down to them. They grew up and had more kittens. When animal control found them, there was a colony of more than 45 cats, living on top of each other in the bottom of that well.
Night fell and amidst the glow of the full moon, the scene took on an eerie feel. Shadows looked like souls rising up and drifting away and the quiet was almost deafening.
I had already decided that I was going to catch a few winks in my car so I could be there the first thing in the morning. As I was walking away, I stopped and turned. I heard birds singing. It was night-time…a plane had crashed…a town had been annihilated…and birds were singing.
A quote from Rose Kennedy came to mind. She said “birds sing after a storm. Why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”
Who was going to delight in the next mornings’ sunlight? The first responders? Law enforcement? Me? Certainly not the people on the plane or the townsfolk. The sun might be shining the next day but we were going to be in the midst of hell on earth, looking at bits and pieces of what used to be lives.
I was exhausted and fell into a fitful sleep. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of heavy equipment. There were earth movers, cranes, firetrucks, ambulances and a plethora of law enforcement vehicles. Several news crews arrived along with reporters from various other papers.
I took a swig of stale water from a bottle that had been in my car for two or three days and headed toward the scene. Sheriff Monson was already there and shared some information he had gotten during the night.
He said he heard from dispatch, that a Boeing 747 had crashed into the town.
I remember thinking, “if it was an airplane crash, where is the plane?”
On impact, it had broken apart into what looked like a thousand puzzle pieces and no identifying marks could be discerned. Only the size of the debris field could confirm that it was indeed a massive plane.
I don’t know why but I asked him where the plane was headed. “What a ridiculous question,” I thought. Did it really matter where they were going? He adjusted his belt, put his hand on my shoulder and as he walked away, said “they were going to Las Vegas.”|
Las Vegas. Sin City. The place where “what happens there, stays there.” The city where you can walk away a millionaire or lose your entire life’s savings with one throw of the dice. None of the people on that plane were going to do either of those things. They had already gambled…and lost.
There were 223 souls on board the flight, including the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and three stewardesses. All were lost. The souls lost on the ground were not yet known.
Sheriff Monson and I noticed a caravan of official looking vehicles arriving. He looked confused as he said “who the hell are these guys?”
They were from the NTSB. This was going to be the first major airline crash they investigated. They took over and we were left with more or less, slim pickens. I walked around, in an almost state of shock as I watched body bag after body bag being loaded into unmarked vans.
I learned that only one person on that plane was still fully intact. One. It was a stewardess and she was found in a tree, miles from the crash site, still strapped to her jump-seat.
The crash site spanned more than an eight-mile radius. The National Guard was called in when it was discovered that people from other towns had descended on the area. They were pilfering suitcases and taking jewelry off hands and arms they found in the woods.
Reverend Smythe had been out of town but rushed back to Whisper when he heard what happened. He was there to offer as much comfort as he possibly could but seeing death on such a large scale was something he was ill prepared for.
A few of the workers broke down even though they were used to seeing death. They had seen it many times but these deaths…these deaths were horrendous. They were picking up legs, arms and even heads. They were finding tiny limbs that belonged to children. Some of the bodies were literally fused to parts of the plane.
This kind of massacre could bring anybody to their knees. More than once, I turned my head and wiped tears from my face. I have never considered myself to be overly religious but I wanted to raise my arms and look to the Heavens and scream “why? If you’re such a loving God, why? What purpose could this possibly serve?”
I watched as Reverend Smythe prayed over every body part recovered. Who, if anybody had survived in town was still unknown. The wreckage had demolished the buildings and the hope of finding anybody alive was fading. Reverend Smythe was never one to give up faith that the Heavenly Father would protect his flock and he was going to need his faith now more than ever.
When a Seacrest green Chevy trunk was uncovered, Reverend Smythe crumbled in agony. Billy Rays’ body was found in the mangled wreckage. That young man was never going to have children and watch them grow up.
That young man was never going to see his black hair turn grey.
To be continued___________________