The Air India passenger jet from Mumbai was about to land in Geneva on Jan. 24, 1966, but never made it. The Boeing 707 crashed near the summit of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, killing all 117 people aboard and scattering wreckage across the mountainside.
There, a box marked “Made in India” kept its secret for nearly a half-century.
Then, in 2013, a man in his 20s climbed atop a glacier and found the box. Inside, he discovered a trove of emeralds and sapphires worth a small fortune. The climber, whom authorities have not identified, turned his haul in to police.
On Friday - eight years later - authorities announced that, since their efforts to find passengers’ heirs had proved fruitless, the anonymous climber would split the treasure with Chamonix, a French village that sits on the country’s eastern edge and shares borders with Switzerland and Italy.
In total, the stones are worth about $169,000, Chamonix Mayor Eric Fournier said, according to the Guardian.
Two gemology experts sorted the gems into two equal groups, town officials said in a Facebook post. They gave half to the climber and half to Chamonix. Town officials said they plan to display their share — with its “unique geological and historical heritage” — at the Chamonix Crystals Museum.
Fournier told Agence France-Presse he was “very happy” that the question of the gems’ ownership had been answered. He praised the mountaineer for his “integrity” in turning over the treasure to authorities, which is required by law.
After learning earlier this year that he would get some of the jewels, the climber told Le Parisien newspaper he didn’t “regret having been honest” and said he would renovate his apartment with some of the money generated by selling them off, according to the Guardian.
The Boeing 707 carrying the gems was one of two Air India flights that crashed into Mont Blanc in the mid-20th century. The first — Air India Flight 245 — did so in 1950 during a storm, killing all 48 people aboard. Sixteen years later, Air India Flight 101 hit almost exactly the same spot, ejecting the gems. The cause of the crash has been the subject of conspiracy theories over the years, mainly because one of the passengers killed was Homi Bhabha, the father of the country’s nuclear industry.
Investigators probed the cause of the crash for more than a year. They concluded the wreck happened because the pilot thought he had already cleared the mountain range as he descended for landing. The pilot reported to air traffic control where he believed the plane was; even though a controller gave the pilot the plane’s actual location, the correction was misunderstood.
Climbers frequently find wreckage, luggage and remains from the two flights. In 1986, metal wire and landing gear emerged. Last year, the melting glacier revealed copies of Indian newspapers announcing Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister, which happened the day of the crash. In September 2012, Indian officials reclaimed a bag of diplomatic mail from the 1966 flight.