Try 1 month for 99¢

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — A black-and-white photograph sits atop a shelf in 81-year-old Marvin Bennett's study, a moment of happiness frozen in time.

The picture was taken in 1965 in Bogota, Colombia.

In the photograph, Bennett's then-wife, Janet, sits on a rock at the edge of a spring, looking off into the distance. Her hair is pulled to the top of her head — just the way he liked it — and her white dress is pressed and clean. Bennett, then 31, is washing the feet of the couple's daughters, Maria, 2, and Rosa, 6. The dark-haired adopted Rosa smiles at the camera.

Bennett, retired from the now-Idaho National Laboratory, keeps the snapshot on the bookshelf behind his desk. He glances back at it occasionally while classical music drifts about the room.

He prefers to remember his family this way. It's better than the black smoke and ball of fire that engulfed them later that year.

On Nov. 11, 1965, the family was aboard United Airlines Flight 227 traveling to Salt Lake City. The plane crashed 335 feet from the runway, breaking fuel lines that caused a fire in the plane's cabin.

Of the 91 passengers and crew aboard, 48 survived. Bennett was among them. His family was not.

It was the second-deadliest crash in Utah since 1934, a Post Register analysis of Department of Transportation and National Transportation Safety Board records found. The deadliest occurred in 1947, when a United Airlines flight attempted an emergency landing at the Bryce Canyon Airport after the baggage compartment caught fire. All 53 aboard died, according to the accident summary.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the crash, but Bennett remembers every detail of the tragedy that stripped him of his family.

As the runway lights at the Salt Lake City airport grew bigger and brighter on Veterans Day 1965, Bennett felt elated.

The family was returning home from Colombia, where they served as missionaries through the Papal Volunteers for Latin America. It would be the couple's first time home in three years.

Bennett looked across the aisle at Janet, 24. She was radiant. Her hair was done up — the way Bennett couldn't resist — accentuating her slim, "gazelle''-like neck and model figure. Maria sat with her.

Rosa sat with her father. Next to her was Nad Brown of Salt Lake City. She told Brown how excited she was to meet her new grandparents.

Bennett smiled; he couldn't wait to get home. Perhaps the family would even go to a fancy restaurant for a change.

That smile turned to panic a few seconds later. The plane started accelerating as it met the runway.

No crew member's voice came over the PA system, and no flight attendant alerted passengers of a problem. But Bennett knew from his Air Force days that this was not normal.

Mrs. Lyndon Day of Arlington, Va., who opened one of the plane's emergency exits, told The Associated Press she heard a loud thud as the plane smashed into the ground. Then ``the cockpit was amass with flames,'' she said.

The cabin lights went out. A woman seated in front of Bennett went up in a ball of flames "like a Roman candle.'' A man's anguished scream, "Oh my God!'' echoed in Bennett's ears for years after.

United Airlines Flight 227 was traveling from New York City to San Francisco that day. It had four scheduled stops, including Salt Lake City.

5:49 p.m.: The plane was cleared to land. It was too high and descending too quickly, according to the accident report.

5:50 p.m.: Capt. Gale Kehmeier stopped the first officer from applying power.

About 10 seconds before impact: Kehmeier attempted to add power.

5:52 p.m.: The plane hit the ground 335 feet short of the runway, sliding 2,800 feet before stopping. The right main landing gear ruptured fuel lines. Fire erupted under seat 18E and traveled up the inside wall of the cabin, the report stated.

Christy Thorkildsen, then an employee for another airline, said in a Nov. 12, 1965, Post-Register article that flames erupted from under the plane.

The resulting fire caused all 43 fatalities.

Eight of the 43 victims were bound for Idaho Falls, but the Bennetts were the only residents aboard. The parents and brother of William Blaisdell, stationed in Idaho Falls with the Navy at the time, were killed.

Aboard but unscathed was Japanese scientist Shigelakia Shimura, 29, headed to tour the now-Department of Energy health and safety laboratory, according to the article.

Shimura was already unbuckled when the plane crashed. That likely saved his life, he told the newspaper. As he climbed out of the plane, he said he looked back and saw only dense smoke and flames.

Blame for the accident was placed entirely on Kehmeier, who recently had celebrated his 25th anniversary with the airline. The report revealed that Kehmeier had failed his initial jet transition training course and a routine annual instrument proficiency check.

At the time, Bennett didn't know any of this. He only knew the smoke and flames inside the cabin, and the urgency to escape.

The nightmare lasted 45 seconds, but it seemed a lifetime to Bennett.

Amid the screams and smoke, he unbuckled his seat belt and fumbled with Rosa's. He had to get her off the plane. But then the line for the oxygen masks broke above him. When the oxygen met the heat in the cabin, it became a fireball headed for Bennett's face.

Bennett shielded himself with his hands as a blow torch of flames licked his skin. He passed out.

"(I remember) thinking about the Lord and figuring this was probably it,'' Bennett said.

It wasn't.

Nad Brown made it off the plane, Bennett said, but returned to save Rosa.

He couldn't reach the child. He was able to save Bennett, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hands and face.

"I owe (Brown) a lot,'' Bennett said.

When the fire finally was extinguished, Dr. Hilmon Castle, Civil Aeronautics Board medical examiner, said he found charred bodies "strewn along the aisle, some of them piled on top of each other,'' according to the Post-Register article.

The remains were carried off the plane in 40 sacks. Had it not been for Brown, Bennett's remains likely would have been among them.

A curled, red ear, smaller than it should be, is one of Bennett's only visible scars.

Doctors had to trim burned flesh from Bennett's ear. Slight, red scarring also is visible on his forehead and hands.

But the inner scars, those that live deep within his soul, reveal themselves when he speaks about the accident.

Brown tried to keep in contact with Bennett following the accident, but Bennett kept his distance. He wanted to forget.

Bennett got his private pilot's license soon after the accident, he said, to "prove something'' to himself.

Nearly 50 years later, he believes he's moved on, but regrets not being able to say goodbye to his family.

Back in Bennett's basement study, the classical music continues to fill the room. His eyes roll over pictures of the family he lost. Those pictures, however, are intermingled with those of his wife, whom he married in 1967, their children and grandchildren.

His new family, Bennett believes, is why he survived.

"I was sitting on my Jesus (in that airplane); he made me unbuckle and get out ... now I have (this) family.''

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments