Air France’s Tragedy Opens the Wounds of Her Own Loss
A plane crash more than 50 years ago brings survivors together as community
-Elayne Savage, PhD
The world awaits word about what went wrong when the Air France Airbus 447 disintegrated into the Atlantic Ocean during a violent thunderstorm. My brother Lee and I watch and wait too. Each time a plane crashes we are transfixed for days, glued to news outlets. We are hungry for updates and conjectures. Ever since our mother and grandmother died in a plane crash more than 50 years ago when I was 12 and my brother was nine.
On August 22, 1954 my mother, Goldie Raskin, was accompanying my grandmother, Sarah Wolfson, from Omaha to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. They had taken a United Airlines flight from Omaha to Des Moines and intended to take another United flight to Minneapolis. But there was a two-hour delay so they opted to take a Braniff flight that left earlier. What they didn’t know is the Braniff flight was a ‘puddle-jumper.’ From Des Moines it had stopped in Waterloo and was on its way to the Mason City Airport. More stops were scheduled before Rochester, stopping in one town after another on the way to Rochester.
Their Braniff Air DC-3 crashed while approaching Mason City during a violent thunder and hail storm. The pilot had been warned not to land during this fierce storm with high winds.
The plane crashed into a cornfield in Swalesdale, 10 miles outside of Mason City.
The report reads, “strong downdrafts forced the plane to the ground.” My brother, Lee, theorizes this is what they now call ‘wind shear.’
Twelve of nineteen on board were killed, including the pilot and co-pilot. Debris from the crash was spread along a line of more than 500 feet.
The pain never goes away. It doesn’t matter what the media speculates about how far the debris might be scattered. For Lee and me, it’s scattered over a lifetime.
And each time, we relive the ‘not knowing’ – the endless waiting for information. Just as we waited those many years ago when that “we arrived safely” phone call never came.
As it turns out, we first learned of the plane crash on the evening news.
The days surrounding the crash had an unreal quality. First there was learning not everyone on the plane died and thinking somebody made a really bad mistake. Then there was not being allowed to attend the double funerals. I remember reporters swarming around us asking too many personal questions. And well-meaning bosomy women smelling of talc, pulling me close and clucking, “Oh, you poor baby.” I couldn’t breathe.
And I couldn’t cry, either.
It was years before I could cry about this loss of two generations of the women in my life. Two generations of support, of nurturing, of role modeling, of storytelling.
We were not allowed to grieve in our family. We did not attend the funeral. We could not speak of my mother. My dad removed all photos of her. There was to be no grieving.
Our family’s inept response made the loss surreal. And it stayed that way. Recently someone reminded me in order to grieve a loss it has to be made real. Then we can move on.
I knew I had to find a way to make this loss real. Then it came to me: I could locate and actually sit inside a DC-3. I’ve made two pilgrimages now. These have been life-changing experiences.
Recently Lee and I were interviewed about the crash by Mason City Globe Gazette editor, John Skipper.
Truth be told, each time I tell my story, I fantasize someone will recognize the circumstance and contact me, “I knew someone who survived that crash” or “I know a family who lost someone on that plane” or “I grew up on a nearby farm and witnessed the crash.”
Then it happened. When the Globe Gazette article appeared, witnesses stepped forward, wanting to share their impressions with us.
People from the Swaledale farming community have never forgotten that August 22 day. They are still deeply affected. Vivid memories stay with each of them.
Lee and I are grateful to hear their stories. How the community pitched in to save the injured and to protect the dead. How neighbors volunteered for search and rescue until the officials arrived to take charge. How they used their farm tractors to pull the ambulances through muddy fields to and from the crash site. How they used barn doors as stretchers.
Some of the residents who contacted us were about my age at the time. How fast we all grew up that day. How our lives changed as we were made aware of how fragile a human life is.
Then Lee and I decided to try to locate the only two living survivors, the flight hostess and a passenger whose life she saved by dragging her across muddy fields, over fences and to the road. She flagged down a truck and the owner of the farm drove them both to the hospital.
My brother, Lee Raskin, is a fantastic investigator, tracing both women after determining their married names. We located them and made contact! Can you imagine what it is like to talk with these two crash survivors – after 54 years?
Can you picture how rejuvenating it is to join with the Swaledale community in this reunion of grief all these years later?
Lee and I have lived for over five decades with this unhealed wound. Every year we dread the arrival of August 22. We’ve existed in our narrow little world of painful experiences. Feeling ‘different’ from our school friends, rarely talking about our past. It was always awkward to try to explain that our mother and grandmother died in a plane crash. People just don’t know how to respond. So we said nothing.
We were stunned to learn how that plane crash, which changed our lives forever, has affected so many others as well.
Knowing we are part of this reunion of “survivors” is an incredible experience. Now that we have discovered one another, we are able to be a small comfort for each other. Even the newspaper editor wrote me about the personal affect our story has on him. “Thank you for the opportunity to tell your story and to open another door in my life.” He reflects how our reminiscences are a reminder that not everyone can move on as easily as others.
And what a huge door he opened for all of us to come together as community. Now we are looking at the possibility of an actual reunion of all of us survivors at that farm in Swaledale, Iowa.
Elayne Savage, PhD is a Relationship and Communication Coach, Speaker, Psychotherapist and Author of ‘Don’t Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection’ and ‘Breathing Room Creating Space to Be a Couple’ (New Harbinger) She writes a monthly e-letter/blog; ‘Tips from the Queen of Rejection’®.
Lee Raskin, JD contributed to this article. He is an internationally recognized motorsports historian and authority on early Porsche racing and actor/racer James Dean.