The Fall of Flight 624

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The Unidentified from Flight 624 in St. Ignatius Cemetery. Insert: Grave of George Von Sebo, International Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery

 

Note: The site of the plane crash is on private property. Please DO NOT trespass on posted lands.

“Are you sure he’s buried here?” Mike asked as the two of us spread out and searched the stones among the freshly cut grass.

“The newspaper article I read said the grave was at the back of the cemetery. It is a flat stone and is easily overlooked. But according to the article, it can be seen from the walkway,” I replied. The two of us had been searching the rear portion of the cemetery for close to ten minutes, walking over ground we had already searched.

“Are you sure?” Mike asked again. “I really don’t see a marker for him.” I had to agree, the man whose grave we sought did not appear to be where the newspaper article claimed he was buried. Maybe I had read it wrong. A strong feeling of disappointment hung in the air as the two of us moved on and checked the other stones in the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery.

I had wandered over to check out some of the older tombstones when Mike called out excitedly, “Hey, I found him!”

Mike was standing in a spot we had already checked a couple of times, but there, hidden by day lilies, was the stone I sought. The hidden grave belonged to George Von Sebo, who along with forty-two others, lost their lives on June 17, 1948 when Flight 624 crashed into the mountain between Aristes and Centralia.

Even before the fire that killed the mining town of Centralia occurred, the community was familiar with death. Alexander Rea, who was the first to exploit the coal buried beneath the town was shot and killed by a group of men later identified as members of the Molly Maguires. Death was a part of life in the mines as dangers, including gas, falling rocks, and explosions, which claimed the lives of the miners trying to provide for their families. Note: More about the death of Alexander Rea can be found here: Alexander Rea and Patrick Hester.

However, it would not be the fire that propelled the town into the national spotlight in 1948. On June 17, 1948, fourteen years before the fire that still burns began, the town was thrust into the national news when forty-three people were killed in an airplane crash. At 1:41 pm, United Airlines Flight 624 crashed into the mountain between Centralia and Aristes, killing the thirty-nine passengers and four crew members onboard.

Flight 624 had been a normal one for the majority of journey. It had left San Diego, making stops at Los Angeles and Chicago before heading towards the LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The last routine call to La Guardia Airport happened at 12:27 pm when the plane was cleared to descend to between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. At 12:31 pm, Captain Warner radioed in that there had been a fire on board and the fire extinguishers had been released. In an excited voice, an emergency descent was being declared.

The Douglas DC-6 airplane fleet had just come off a four month grounding due to a major design flaw. The cabin heater intake scoop was positioned too close to one of the fuel tank air vents. If the flight crew allowed the tank to be overfilled, the excess fuel would flow out of the tank vent. The excess fuel could be sucked into the cabin heater system, causing the fuel to ignite, creating a fire in the forward cargo compartment.

When the fire alarm went off, Captain Warner followed procedure and radioed in that there was a fire in the cargo compartment. He pulled the release on the CO2 and then dropped in altitude in order to depressurize the airplane.

While it will never be known what exactly happened in the cockpit that fateful day, the official report places the probable cause of the crash as a build-up of CO2 in the cockpit, which incapacitated the flight crew. This was due to the failure to open the cockpit’s relief valves, which would have prevented the build-up of the carbon dioxide. The final report declared that there had not been a fire in the compartment at all – the warning had been false.

What is known was Flight 624 was now dropping at a rate of four thousand feet per mile. Witnesses saw the plane moving erratically north and south as it continued to rapidly descend. The airplane barely cleared the mountains east of Shamokin and it was estimated it cleared the mountains by less than two hundred feet.

Note: A number of newspaper articles of the time claim witnesses saw the plane upside down as it cleared the mountain. I’ve not been able to determine if the claim was valid or if it was a slightly exaggerated claim. I believe this claim was more exaggerated than truthful.

It is believed that the pilots fell victim to the increase of carbon dioxide in the cockpit and they eventually passed out, putting the plane in a steady fall towards the ground, rather than descending slightly before leveling out. Moments before the plane hit the mountainside, it is believed that one of the crew regained consciousness and attempted to pull the plane out of its wild descent, but unfortunately it was too late. At the last moment, the plane pulled rapidly up and sharply to the right, but the right wing clipped the 66,000-volt wires of the transformer supplying power to the Mid-Valley Colliery at Wilburton.

The plane exploded.

Newspapers of the time describe it as a scene of carnage with pieces of the plane and body parts strewn over an acre of mountainside. Miners attempted to reach the wreckage in an attempt to search for survivors, but the fire was so intense that they were driven back by the heat.

The task of identifying the dead was nearly impossible.

On board the fateful flight was Earl Carroll, a Hollywood night club owner. A native of Pittsburgh, he made a name for himself as a producer of “Vanities.” His shows were among the most popular of the age due to the fact that they were the first Broadway shows to have full nudity. Though married, little seems to be known about Earl’s wife – he was known to have many women with him and he eventually would settle down with the star of his newly revived Vanities Theater, Beryl Wallace.

In an odd twist of fate, that morning Earl had received a phone call from Maxie Rosenbloom. They were to meet to discuss Rosenbloom’s appearance in one of Carroll’s upcoming shows. Earl told Rosenbloom that he was tossing a coin: if it was heads he and Beryl would stop in Detroit to talk with him, if it was tails they were going to continue to New York where they could get together. The coin came up as tails – they were heading to New York.

Another odd occurrence happened only a short time before: Earl had changed his will stating if they died at the same time, his desire was to have their bodies cremated and their ashes buried together. Beryl was thrown clear of the wreckage and was easily identified; Earl was only identified by his fingerprints. Their remains would be fully cremated and buried together in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Also on board was Mrs. Venita Varden Oakie, a former Follies girl and the former wife of Jack Oakie, a movie comedian; Henry L. Jackson, the men’s fashion editor of Collier’s Magazine; and Parker W. Silzer, the only son of the late Governor George S. Silzer of New Jersey. Of those identified, most were sent home to be buried among relatives. However one of the identified victims was not: George Von Sebo, the head of warehousing and merchandising control division of Devoe and Reynolds, Inc. was buried among the former residents in the IOOF Cemetery overlooking town.

As I stood there, the plane crash from so long ago suddenly took a turn in my head. The articles, the statistics, and the reports suddenly had even more meaning. George was no longer a statistic – his tragic death suddenly became real.

I finished paying my respects before we resumed walking the small cemetery, reading the stones of the former residents. Once we had finished, we crossed Route 61 to pay our respects to those unidentified victims buried there. The unidentified bodies and body parts were interred in the grounds of St. Ignatius Cemetery. After paying our respects, we left the cemetery in silence, remembering those who perished that fateful day.

Notes: Many recent articles about the crash of Flight 624, state that George was the only victim who was identified. Obviously, he was not the only one. I believe that this comes from the fact he was the only one of the identified who was buried in Centralia.

Shortly after I originally posted this article, I received an email from Stacy, who informed we there was a similar stone for the unidentified victims of the plane crash located in the Tifereth Israel Hebrew Cemetery near Mount Carmel.

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