An Overview of the Accident
The Grand Canyon midair collision occurred on Saturday, June 30, 1956, at a spot in the sky one or two miles west or southwest from the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, at the eastern end of the canyon. Two four-engine, propeller-driven airliners, some of the biggest in the U.S.A., ran into each other at an altitude of 21,000', at 11:30 a.m., Mountain Standard Time. They had taken off an hour and a half earlier at Los Angeles International Airport, one headed for Kansas City with 70 persons on board, and the other headed for Chicago with 58 persons on board.
As a result of the damage caused in the collision, both planes crashed in the canyon, on the west bank of the Colorado River, taking the lives of all 128 persons aboard. This was by far the greatest loss of life in an airline accident that had ever occurred, anywhere in the world, up to that time. It was also the first and only midair collision between two airliners carrying passengers that had ever happened in the U.S.A., and it involved two reputable airlines, TWA and United Air Lines, no less.
The country was stunned ~ this was an unthinkable disaster, confidently held to be basically impossible by almost everyone who had thought of the possibility. It seemed preposterous that two huge airliners, readily visible, could even come perilously close together in the wide open sky, without their crews spotting the other plane and taking evasive measures.
The accident happened well removed from both flights' proposed courses, about 12 miles north of TWA's and 20 miles north of United Air Lines'. Neither proposed course passed over the canyon, but in those days sightseeing jaunts were common for flights that skirted nearby.
It is fairly certain that United Air Lines was over the canyon for just this purpose, while TWA may have been there for the same reason, or to circumnavigate the huge cloud that was blocking their proposed course.
Either way, they came around opposite sides of the massive cloud and ran into each other; and just to be completely clear, this was in the open air ~ neither of them flew through the cloud.
One twentieth of a second was all that separated all of those people from life. Had the TWA plane taken off 1/20th of a second sooner, or the United Air Lines plane 1/20th of a second later than it did, the planes would have just barely missed each other, and what happened that day would have been only a significant but obscure incident lost to the annals of history.
These wishful thoughts aside, in the reality that ensued the United plane lost the outer third of its left wing, and the TWA plane lost its entire tail section. The TWA plane went completely out of control and tumbled end-over-end to the earth; the United plane entered a left-turning, downward spiral and was still marginally flyable, though terribly hampered.
From the evidence later found in the wreckage, it appeared that the pilot of the United plane managed to gain a measure of improvised control, but tragically he lost it just seconds before the crash, when his own tail section came apart. Had this not happened, the United plane would have overflown the rocky promontory that it hit, and its pilot may have been able to perform a belly landing on the Colorado River.
An hour and a half later, with both flights having failed to report their positions for all that time, a Missing Aircraft Alert was issued and the United States Air Force launched a full-scale search and rescue mission. Despite their great effort, they were unable to find the wreckage that day, even though both crash sites had become infernos giving rise to great, tall columns of black smoke; apparently the overcast in the crash area hid the sites from the view of the aircraft above.
Out of all proportion to the massive search effort, the wreckage was actually discovered just before dusk that evening by a private pilot who had seen the smoke earlier in the day, around lunchtime, when he had flown tourists near the area for sightseeing. He heard a report on the radio that evening that two airliners were missing and he immediately realized what the smoke he saw midday must have been; he hurriedly flew back to the area and identified the TWA wreckage from the markings on its tail section. Nightfall was fast approaching and for his own safety he had to leave the depths of the canyon to fly home, without examining the second still-burning area a mile north, though he was sure it must be the United plane.
He radioed Grand Canyon National Park headquarters and reported his find, but by then it was too dark out for the air force to fly over the area and verify his information. That had to wait until the following morning at dawn, at which time the air force positively and officially identified both wrecks.
Across the nation many hundreds of families, those of the victims and their friends, had lived through the worst night of their lives, with their loved ones missing, and now, on Sunday, they received the awful word that both planes had crashed and that no survivors were expected.
One of those families was my own ~ my uncle, Jack Groshans, was a passenger on the United plane.
For the families and friends of the victims, the coming days were a seemingly eternal nightmare of praying for a miracle and direly fearing the worst. The families waited in excruciating alertness for the phone to ring with the dreaded call informing them that their loved one had been positively identified, and the friends waited in a parallel, persistent agony, for the correspondingly dreadful call from the families.
Only 39 of the 128 victims were positively identified ~ 10 from the TWA plane, and 29 from the United plane. The rest of the remains were buried in two common graves, TWA's in Flagstaff, Arizona, and United's in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona. Six of the identified TWA victims were buried along with the unidentified remains at TWA's mass gravesite, at the request of the families; all of United's 29 identified victims were sent home for burial.
TWA held a funeral service on Monday, July 9, 1956, with approximately 350 family members in attendance, and roughly 1,500 citizens of Flagstaff in solemn, reverent observance in the background. Clergymen from four faiths gave sermons. It was an overwhelming event, so much so that even the men of the military honor guard cried. 67 caskets were on display (one of which was sent home after the service) and seemed to extend forever in the three columns, stretched out in front of the congregation. At the end of the service, as the mourners passed in front of their loved ones for the last time, eight of them were overcome and collapsed; they were taken to a Red Cross tent, which had been set up in anticipation of such unendurable emotional crises.
United held a memorial service on Thursday, August 2, 1956, in front of a very large, standing headstone, and an already-closed grave, with the acceptance and agreement of the families. This ostensibly odd arrangement was due in part to the fact that the huge limestone marker was not yet in place by the time the unidentified remains needed to be interred. It was also due to the grievously distressing fact that there were only four caskets for the unidentified remains, even though 29 victims from the United plane were not identified. This demonstrated unequivocally that most of the unidentified victims were just plain missing, undiscovered somewhere up on the butte where the plane crashed, a fact that would have been cruelly too much to bear for most of the mourners. So the four coffins were buried before the service.
The trauma of unexpectedly losing a loved one cannot be conveyed, but only suggested. In the face of such devastating misfortune we are confronted with our powerlessness, our ignorance and our helplessness as much as with our bereavement, to such a degree that the ordeal might as well be a tortured nightmare from a reality entirely removed from the one we have known. Because it is so alien and incomprehensible, it can seem like an illusion or a netherworld, a half-world that just doesn't "add up." On the other hand, because it is so starkly terrible, it can seem like it is in nature more real than anything a person has known before. And both views are right. Either one by itself, and especially the two combined, is utterly bewildering and leaves a person defenseless against his sorrow and grief. These take on proportions beyond measure and are absolutely rending.
This was the plight of a multitude of family and dear friends of those who were lost, and it continued in phases through the succeeding years, often taking them by surprise. There's no such thing as getting over a tragedy such as this ~ only creating a new life and lapsing into periods of forgetfulness or times when an encouraging viewpoint takes precedence over the unanswerable pain of the loss.
Twenty years after the accident, in 1976, a massive effort was made to clean up the wreckage and most of it was removed. Nowadays, numerous small parts and fragments remain, but there is little or no sign from the river or the east rim that anything ever happened there.
author of We Are Going In, the historical book about the tragedy