Perched around crevesses crisscrossing a glacier deep in the mountains east of Anchorage, military personnel continued recovering debris Thursday from a 1952 plane crash that killed everyone onboard.
The C-124 Globemaster is thought to have slammed into a cliff face on Mount Gannett on Nov. 22, nearly six decades ago. The plane, one of the largest in the U.S. air fleet at the time, was nearing the end of a flight from Washington state to Alaska and carried 52 military servicemen. A pilot found the plane days after it crashed, but snow buried it and searchers, battling severe weather, were never able to recover the plane, its passengers or its crew.
In June, a National Guard helicopter crew spotted pieces of the historic plane on Colony Glacier, more than 12 miles from where it was last seen. That triggered a new effort to bring back and identify pieces of the plane -- and the people who died in the crash, in the hopes of bringing closure to their families.
A team from the Hawaii-based Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command visited the site and recovered human remains in June. During the last two weeks, investigators from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks picked up the recovery effort where the JPAC team left off.
The new effort included Air Force, Army and National Guard personnel, said Capt. Tania Bryan with the Alaskan Command, part of the U.S. military's Pacific Command. The team was comprised of 10 crash-recovery specialists, a Mortuary Affairs specialist, two specialists trained to deal with cold and mountainous terrain, helicopter crews, and an explosives disposal technician, "just as a precaution," Bryan said.
"We have the capability, it's the right thing to do, and we put this team together to remove as much as possible," Bryan said.
The largest pieces of debris, some of which were used to identify the plane, included an engine cover and unused survival kits, Bryan said. The JPAC team also saw one of the plane's wheels in June, but it had since fallen into a crevasse, she said.
"As you can imagine, after being churned through a glacier for the last 60 years, the material is in pretty small pieces now," Bryan said.
According to Gregory Berg, a JPAC forensic anthropologist in an interview recorded by Alaska military public affairs, the investigators also found pieces of clothing from the plane's occupants in the debris.
"We've confirmed the aircraft based on some name associations we found out on the ice," Berg said. "What I mean by that is there was some clothing that had names on it."
Still, to be sure they've matched remains to the correct passenger, the investigators must go deeper, Berg said. They'll look at dental records, if possible, compare the DNA of the remains to the DNA of relatives, and skeletal analysis might also play a role, he said.
"All those things kind of come together in the identification process to make one ID, and it is lengthy, because it's done right and it's done proper," Berg said. "We will be able to make some identifications over the course of the next months and maybe years. The identification process is really slow. It's not (a TV show like) 'CSI' or 'Bones.' You don't get remains and have a name in an hour."
Berg also said people interested in the debris zone should stay away from the area, which he described as an archaeological site.
"If there are additional pieces that start eroding out of the glacier, and somebody is maybe moving them around, that's a potential loss for us," Berg said. "Which means the families of the aircraft crash victims might not get a proper identification if there's site tampering."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.