It's said that dead men tell no tales. But a severed arm and hand that emerged from a Wrangell Mountain glacier nine years ago just might -- with the help of two pilots, several forensic and genetic scientists and a raft of state and federal officials.
Their combined efforts, detailed at an Anchorage press conference Friday, have determined that the human remains belong to one of the passengers on board a DC-4 airliner that slammed into the side of Mount Sanford 60 years ago last spring.
More specifically, they belong to Francis Joseph Van Zandt, a 36-year-old merchant marine from Roanoke, Va., who perished in the crash with 23 other sailors and all six crew members on a flight from China to New York via Anchorage on March 12, 1948.
Newspapers at the time called the loss of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422 one of the worst commercial airline crashes in Alaska history. But it quickly became one of the most mysterious as well.
Rumors soon spread that the plane was loaded with gold bullion -- a supposed payoff to the passengers for having just sailed an oil tanker from America to Shanghai to aid Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in his civil war with the Red Army. Others said it contained a valuable audiotape of a conversation between Chiang and President Franklin Roosevelt.
Investigators with the Civil Aeronautics Board, meanwhile, wondered why the plane crashed. The temperature was 35 below and the sky mostly cloud-free that night as the chartered DC-4 made its way across the Copper River basin -- where 16,237-foot Mount Sanford dominates the horizon like a huge pyramid in the desert. At a cruising elevation of 11,000 feet, the plane flew squarely into the west side of Sanford as if the pilots never saw it coming.
Investigating the site the next day, a rescue party found no sign of the fuselage. They saw the imprints the four engines made where they bored into the side of the snowy mountain. They saw the charred trail the plane left when it exploded into a fireball -- reportedly visible 50 miles away in Glennallen -- then pinwheeled thousands of feet down an avalanche chute until it rolled to a stop at the head of a glacier. They saw the snow slide that must have followed the plane downhill, burying all but a small piece of its tail section. And they saw that no one could possibly have survived.
After a few storms, all evidence of the wreckage disappeared beneath ice and snow.
There it remained for nearly 50 years, until 1997, when two off-duty commercial airline pilots -- Marc Millican of Anchorage and Kevin McGregor of Golden, Colo. -- discovered several tell-tale signs of the crash.
They didn't find them by chance. As pilots for Northwest Airlines, they'd heard stories about Flight 4422. They studied histories and plotted a search. They flew over the glacier several times and shot photographs.
Finally, while patrolling on the ground about 2½ miles from the crash site, they came across a few relics. After returning home and receiving permission from the National Park Service (the site lies within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park), they returned two years later to recover enough remnants to document what happened.
In the summer of 1999 newspapers reported some of their discoveries -- the remains of a three-bladed airplane propeller, a bent dinner knife bearing the Northwest Airlines insignia, a piece of engine plate clearly embossed with the name of the manufacturer.
They also found a human arm and hand. Millican and McGregor didn't disturb it. But they told authorities, and the next day an Alaska state trooper returned with them to the site to transport the remains to the medical examiner for identification.
Which soon proved difficult. Dr. Michael Propst, the state's medical examiner back then, took inked fingerprints from the hand, then had the remains embalmed.
For a couple of years experts in the state crime lab attempted to match the fingerprints to those archived by the U.S. Merchant Marines in the personnel files for some of the plane's passengers.
It was difficult because the fingerprints from the desiccated hand were rough and incomplete. Still, investigators were able to eliminate a few of the passengers whose fingerprints were clearly different.
The circuitous tale of what happened next was the subject of Friday's press conference -- in which Millican and state Department of Health and Social Services officials in the Frontier Building in Anchorage conducted a live teleconference with McGregor and a table full of forensic scientists at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
In a nutshell, identifying the Sanford crash victim required a combination of old-fashioned sleuthing, new-fashioned genetic research and a painstaking effort by a team of genealogists.
On the cutting-edge forensics side, several geneticists outside Alaska -- some of whom became involved in order to explore new techniques -- succeeded in extracting from the hand both mitochondrial DNA (passed down by mothers) and Y-chromosome DNA (passed down from fathers to sons).
But 60-year-old DNA isn't very helpful unless you have something to compare it to. So the genealogists began searching family records of everyone on the plane and came up with both male and female descendants for 16 of them, then profiled their DNA. None of it matched the Sanford hand. But that narrowed the search to the 14 remaining victims.
Michael Grimm Sr., a former fingerprint expert for the FBI living in Virginia, took another crack at the prints -- this time using a new technique that involves hydrating and restoring human flesh. The method worked wonders.
Comparing the new, improved prints with the archives, he narrowed the likely candidates to one, Francis Joseph Van Zandt.
Grimm said the match represented "the oldest known identification of post-mortem remains on record" using fingerprints.
That allowed the geneticists to confirm the conclusion by comparing their DNA samples with DNA from relatives of Van Zandt. The genealogists found two potential male relatives -- one living in New York, the other in Limerick, Ireland. Both DNA comparisons matched.
Joining the teleconference from afar, Maurice Conway, the Irish relative -- having been granted legal custody of the hand and arm of his "second cousin twice removed" -- said he was passing those rights on to the U.S. to advance scientific research.
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.