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Commemorative Plaque Unveiled at Crash Site of the Flagship Erie

By Gord McNulty, CAHS Vice President

A permanent plaque dedicated to 17 passengers and three crew who perished on October 30, 1941, in the crash of an American Airlines DC-3 was unveiled on September 9 at the site of the tragedy at Lawrence Station, southwest of St. Thomas, ON.

It was fitting that a large gathering of more than 100 people attended the ceremonies. Speakers and guests included 26 relatives of the people who were directly impacted by the disaster; Cindy Schweyer --- wife of Rob Schweyer who authored the book, Final Descent: The loss of the Flagship Erie, son Matthew and daughter Sarah; representatives of the Southwold Township History Committee; and other dignitaries.

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David Cooper, Jr., Ken Howe, who was a 5 year old boy asleep in the farmhouse only a few hundred yards from the crash, Peter Cooper.

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Cooper brothers with RCMP Sergeant Rebecca Herrington.

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The DC-3, serial NC 25663, was on a routine flight from Buffalo to Detroit, the third leg of its New York to Chicago run. The airliner was seen flying erratically before it plunged into a farm field at a steep angle. It was the worst aviation disaster in Canada at the time and American Airlines’ first fatal accident involving the seemingly invincible DC-3.

Cover of Final Descent by Rob SchweyerThe grim story was, as historian Hugh Halliday, a CAHS stalwart, noted in his foreword to Final Descent, both “a tragedy and a mystery.” Exhaustive investigations failed to determine the cause of the crash. Virtually all physical evidence of what might have happened aboard the doomed aircraft was destroyed by the impact and fire.

Rob Schweyer completed the manuscript of the book before his untimely death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010. His family self-published Final Descent in 2014 and it is highly recommended. Rob concluded he was “personally convinced that something either jammed or failed aboard the aircraft suddenly and without warning.”

The plaque stands as a tribute to the lives lost, the many area residents who were first responders and those for whom the memories of the crash were forever seared into their memories. As the program for the ceremony stated, the event was “a day of varied emotions: grief and pain over the loss of loved ones, sadness at what might have been, difficult memories brought once again to mind and yet we offer thanksgiving for what is being dedicated here.”

As Hugh Halliday noted, the people aboard the Flagship Erie were a cast of individuals whose stories confirm the adage, “Every life is biography.” For example, in addition to being a top-notch pilot, Captain David Cooper was a writer. He could also sketch so well that he was affectionately known as the cartooning captain of American Airlines. His two sons --- David Jr., who was 2½ and Peter, who was only three months old when their father died --- attended with their wives.

Tragic scene the wreckage of the Flagship Erie Photo by Chester W Phillips Moorhead Minn

Tragic scene – the wreckage of the Flagship Erie (Photo by Chester W. Phillips, Moorhead, Minn.)

Ross Burgar, of the Southwold Township History Committee, noted the crash left 34 children without fathers. At least three of those children were present at the ceremony. Also in attendance was Janet George, whose father, James George of Buffalo, was among the passengers killed.

Ken Howe, who was five years old at the time, retained painful memories of the crash. The DC-3 narrowly missed the roof of the farm Ken’s parents. Ken’s father rushed to the scene but couldn’t help as a massive fire erupted. Ken remembers visiting the tragic site the next day and believes “it took years off my dad’s life.”

The Howe family home instantly became ground zero as a throng of firefighters, police, media, investigators and airline officials arrived on the scene. Ken’s parents provided hospitality and help that was later praised by American Airlines among others. The Howes always believed there should be a commemorative marker.

Ken formed a bond of friendship with David Cooper Jr. through the tragedy. They first met 30 years ago, when David came to Ken’s house in nearby Shedden.

David, 79, of Plandome, NY, expressed enormous gratitude for the residents who rushed to assist during the disaster. “They didn’t run away from tragedy and horror. They rushed toward tragedy and horror to see if anyone could be saved.”

David suggested the generosity of spirit shown by the residents reflects the affection that Americans “have for the people of Canada at a time when others are trying to drive a wedge between our peoples.” He described the plaque as one more indication of the strength of the Canadian-American friendship.

“My father would be very proud to know that his last efforts are being memorialized in such an honoured way.”

David said his mother never talked about his father after he died, but he remains connected to the man who gave him life. “Our father exists for us mainly in the written word.”

Raymond Lunn, 76, of Shedden, is elated that the memorial came to fruition after an impressive community fundraising effort. He drew a connection between the assistance provided by township residents 77 years ago and the help provided by Newfoundlanders who opened their homes to airline passengers stranded in Gander by the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’re Canadians and that’s the Canadian way,” Raymond said.

The CAHS congratulates everyone who made the commemorative plaque possible. They should be proud of their significant contribution in raising awareness about a poignant story that remained largely unknown until the publication of Final Descent inspired a remarkable fundraising effort.

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Left to right: Pilot's son Peter Cooper, victim James George's daughter Janet George Kuebler, pilot's son David Cooper, Jr.

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Our thanks to Ross Burgar for providing links to the extensive media coverage that are well worth checking out: