A somber milestone in Grand Canyon history is fast-approaching. June 30, will mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic mid-air collision of a TWA L-1049 Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7. The two aircraft had ironically left Los Angeles International airport minutes apart, only to converge in a fiery collision that would claim the lives of all 128 people onboard.
The damaged planes plummeted into the rugged terrain of eastern Grand Canyon near Chuar and Temple Buttes. The high-profile tragedy represented the worst mid-air collision in the nation’s history, and was partly responsible for the formation of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Though human remains were removed as soon as crews could get to the scene, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the National Park Service was able to clear the wreckage from the highest cliffs. Not all the debris could be reached, and it can be seen by passing river runners on the nearby Colorado River.
A decade ago, on a solo hike from my river camp just below the Little Colorado River confluence, I stumbled upon a large tire that was left behind. The ’56 crash was the last thing on my mind, so the partially-buried artifact caught me completely off guard. Once I realized what I had discovered a chill crept over me. In the graveyard silence that enveloped me, it was impossible to imagine the chaos that must have erupted on this rocky slope when the sky rained steel and aluminum.
My melancholy lasted for a few days thereafter—only to lift after I vowed to make the most of every moment below the rim. For myself, and those who spent their final few in the grandest of Canyons.