Thursday, August 27, 2015

How It Ended at Medicine Bow Peak


wreckage of flight 409 Randy Wagner, Laramie Daily Bulletin-Boomerang October 7, 1955: Local authorities, reporters, and two priests reached the site where United Airlines Flight 409 crashed into Medicine Bow Peak -- at that time, the deadliest accident in U.S. commercial aviation history, killing all 66 passengers.

From my second-story window I see bright white ice against blue sky: Medicine Bow Peak, the glacier-topped highest point in the Snowy Range mountains. Mostly when I look at it, I ponder when I’ll head up to the Range next to ski or hike or canoe in an alpine lake. Rarely do I think about the aviation disaster that happened up there before I was born. But that’s what many folks around Laramie see when the peak is socked in with autumn clouds, looking like it did on October 6, 1955.

That’s when United Airlines Flight 409 slammed into the mountain, killing all 66 people on board. That number includes the pilot Clinton C. Cooke, Jr., first officer Ralph D. Salisbury, Jr., flight attendant Patricia D. Shuttleworth, two infants, 19 members of the military and five members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Mel Duncan, a local history buff, worked tirelessly to document the incident. Thanks to his published report “Flight 409: Tragedy on Medicine Bow Peak” and his almost single-handed lobbying of the U.S. Forest Service and various government officials, a memorial marker to the victims stands near the scene.

Duncan joined the Wyoming Air Guard in 1948, while still in high school. During his military career he served as an airplane mechanic, crew chief and flight engineer. Upon his retirement in 1991 he spent much of his time at his cabin in the Range, researching and writing books about the Medicine Bow National Forest.

For “Flight 409,” Duncan collected news accounts, official reports, photographs and eye witness testimonies, piecing together the accident and recovery efforts. He gave well-attended presentations based on his research to Wyoming historical organizations. He led interested groups on hikes to take a closer but not too close look at the crash site. I talked with him in May 2000, a year before the memorial plaque was placed. We spoke extensively about the accident, which when it occurred was the worst in U.S. commercial aviation.

The DC-4 aircraft took off from Chicago in the early morning and landed in Denver at 5:51 a.m., more than an hour late because of bad weather. It was bound for Salt Lake City, then on to San Francisco. The customary route would take the flight north into Wyoming then west at the radio beacon at the tiny town of Rock River, safely around the Snowy Range. The pilot was familiar with the route, having flowing it 45 times in the previous year. But this time, he took a shortcut directly over the mountains, some 25 miles off course. The DC-4 was not pressurized and was attempting to fly well over the recommended altitude. The plane failed to clear the 12,013 foot peak by about 75 feet, and crashed. At approximately 7:30 a.m., 66 people lost their lives.

Randy Wagner is a photographer who at the time worked for the Laramie Daily Bulletin-Boomerang. He explained why non-pressurized planes were expected to route around the mountains, not over them: “All transcontinental air travel of that era, starting with air mail service in the 1920s, was routed through the gap in the Rocky Mountain chain that exists between the Snowy Range and the Wind River Range to the north. This is the same gap, the Great South Pass, that was used by all the historic trails, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lincoln Highway to cross the Continental Divide.”

flight 409 map A map showing the crash site, west of Laramie, Wyoming Caption text here

Flight 409 was reported missing about an hour after it failed to report at Rock Springs. With no radar at that time to search for civilian aircraft, a visual air search first flew the planned route, and then flew the shortcut route. The remains of Flight 409 were spotted at 11:40 a.m. scattered across the face of the cliff.

Arriving early on the scene was a group from the Laramie newspaper. R.S. “Tommy” Thompson was among them, and a few years ago I talked to him about those events. He was working in the paper’s composing room when he was pulled off the job to drive a four-wheel drive vehicle up the mountain, taking with him Bill Logan, who was on his first day as editor of the paper.

“We were just about the first people up there,” Thompson told me. “As we got close to the crash site we were stopped at Mirror Lake and told we couldn’t go up. We said we were from the paper and needed pictures.”

According to Thompson, the authorities told them they could only go up the mountain if they took with them two Catholic priests from Rawlins, Wyoming, to the west of the mountains. The priests wanted to administer last rites to the crash victims.

Thompson and his party could see scattered landing gear, plane tires and other debris from their position at Lookout Lake. Then it was time to head up Medicine Bow Peak toward the bulk of the wreckage. “We were carrying cameras and equipment and helping the priests up," said Thompson. "There was six or seven inches of snow and it was pretty tough going. I was glad I was in good shape.

“As we went up we could see the wreckage up above us. The main part of the fuselage was on a high ridge, and that is where most of the bodies were.”

Duncan’s report adds to the description of the scene. He wrote, “The first apparent thing was the gigantic smudge on the rock cliff high above the base camp. As one moved toward the base of the mountain the first portion of the aircraft to come into view was a portion of the main landing gear and two tires that had rebounded some 1500 feet from the point of impact.”

Laramie resident Jim Swinford was working a timber mill at a spot in the forest called Fox Park, and recalls being among the earliest wave of volunteers to reach the crash site. He’d only recently returned from a long tour with the Marine Corps during the Korean War. “The weather on Medicine Bow peak is always terrible,” he said. “The higher up you get, the more the wind blows.” Swinford said he helped transport some remains but did not stay long. “I didn’t like what I saw,” he said.

Fresh snow on the ground combined with the steepness of the crash site and the loose talus slope made conditions very difficult. Carbon County Sheriff John Terrill was one of the first authorities to secure the scene. As it became obvious there were no survivors to rescue, Terrill established a base camp about a mile down the slope. Work teams included United Airlines employees and both civilian and military authorities. But only the most experienced mountaineers were able to climb the nearly sheer face of the peak to recover the bodies of victims.

With a system of ropes and pulleys, alpinists from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Club, the University of Wyoming and the University of Colorado secured remains in body bags and brought them down to the base camp. From there, body bags were loaded onto pack animals and carried to the nearest structure, the University of Wyoming Science Camp, about six miles away. From that temporary morgue, remains were taken in to Laramie. Compounding the difficulty, a train had derailed near Laramie, meaning a delay in transporting recovered remains. Meanwhile, curious onlookers in small private aircraft buzzed the sky over the area, lucky themselves not to be victims of the conditions that brought down Flight 409.

David Whalen Memorial plaque to the victims of Flight 409, dedicated August 25, 2001

After identifiable remains were removed, Duncan told me, it was necessary to dislodge the section of the DC-4’s tail that had been secured by ropes where it balanced in the rock wall above the crash area. For the task, the guardsmen used Howitzers to “shoot the mountain down,” he said.

The other reason for the shelling was to protect the site from looters and curiosity seekers. Many pieces of the aircraft too small or heavy to recover were left on the mountain. The effort to obliterate wreckage remains with the Howitzers was not entirely successful. So to discourage curiosity seekers, the area was napalmed by seven F-80 fighter aircraft, with two strikes each, Duncan reported. At the time of Duncan’s report in the mid-1990s, at least two of the Pratt and Whitney R-2000 engines were still at the site and readily identifiable in glacial pools, although nearly impossible to reach.

The Civil Aeronautics Board (now the FAA) investigation showed all engines were working at the time of the impact and could not tell whether the crew had been incapacitated at the time of impact. The plane did not hit the mountain head on but appeared to be banking upward when it struck Medicine Bow Peak. The board's final ruling, according to Duncan, was that “either a shortcut was being attempted or that the crew was incapacitated and the aircraft was flying without assistance." He added, "The board was reluctant to blame the pilot, but nevertheless stated that he must have purposefully deviated from the prescribed flight route for reasons unknown.” Duncan speculated that the pilot was caught unaware by the turbulent winds near the mountain, his vision hampered by a shroud of clouds hiding the peak.

The area of the crash site is near a popular recreation area in the Range, not too far horizontally, anyway, from a paved two-lane highway. Many people go there to hike the mountain and look for pieces of aircraft. Now that the crash site is more than 50 years old, it is federally protected and no one may legally remove pieces of the wreckage. But people who wish to pay their respects to the victims of UAL Flight 409 can save themselves the steep, rocky hike and instead visit the memorial, positioned just up the highway at the Miner’s Cabin turnout, along the flight path of the aircraft.

Mel Duncan once told me that his interest in Flight 409 had been rekindled after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 aboard. That act of terrorism and the trials of its perpetrators had gotten him thinking about the families of Flight 409. He felt it was important to get some sort of memorial in the mountains to comfort the families and mark the event for future generations.

memorial to flight 409 John R. Waggener August 25, 2001: Dedication of the memorial to those who died in UAL Flight 409. Mel Duncan, who studied the accident for years and led the initiative to create the memorial, faces the camera.

After several years of negotiations, he received the go-ahead from the forest service to place the plaque. The inscription reads “In Memory of the 66 passengers and crew that perished on Medicine Bow Peak October 6, 1955."  Duncan’s wife, Norma, said that her husband found the perfect spot for the memorial marker, on a large quartzite boulder with a flat face. He purchased a brass plaque with his own funds. “We spent a day drilling to get that plaque into the rock. We went through 18 drill bits,” Norma recalled.

A dedication ceremony took place on August 25, 2001, with 132 people in attendance. Many of those people were families of the victims and signed the guest book with notes of grateful appreciation to Duncan.

Mel Duncan died on October 11, 2007, 52 years to the day that recovery efforts concluded on the mountain.


Flight 409

This story jogged my memory. I was 10-years old at the time and remember this incident. I have also climbed in the area about 14-years after the accident. Great story!

Flight 409

Thanks for your feedback. It is hard to look at the mountain now and not feel a bit sober, I guess is the right word.

- Julianne

How It Ended at Medicine Bow Peak

I was born the day before this accident; my mother had been a stewardess with this crew.

My family used to take family vacations to Saratoga, WY and every time we drove past this site my mom would remember how horrible it had been and how lucky she was.

Flight 409

Thanks for your comment. I'm sure Mel Duncan would have been pleased to know you read the story.

- Julianne

Flight 409

Was just reminded by my airline pilot and friend in Evergreen, Colorado, about  how his brother participated in the recovery efforts of Flight 409...then discovered that my wife's brother was one of the military (AF) members lost on that flight...six months before she was born.  As a retired airline pilot myself and my wife, still a flight attendant for a major airine, we are acutely aware of the trials of this life yet the great strides made in airline safety in today's setting. 

Rocky Mountain Rescue

I work at the American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, CO. I had a guest at the museum yesterday who brought this subject up as he was then a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue team that extracted the bodies. He was a wealth of information and I hope at some point we can record his story about the recovery.


Please tell me if his story has been recorded, or how I can talk to him. My grandma and uncle were killed on that flight.

My Grandma

I have always been interested in this wreck. I was five when it happened. I will always remember that my mother, Bonnie Jean West Walker, was 8 months pregnant, and heard it on the tv news as they were on their way out of the door to go to the airport.

My grandmother is incorrectly listed as a man, George, on the list of passengers. In fact, her name was Georgie May Bradshaw West. She was traveling with her son, Earl, who had been  in a wheelchair from the time he was twelve--a victim of encaphalitis. I have always dreaded and sort of hoped that I would see fragments of his wheelchair on the mountain.

I have not been able to research it much until now. I am writing about the impact it had on all of us.

This loss affected three generations of my family. United airlines would only buy one headstone.

A few years ago, I wrote a sort of magical real little short story about this incident.

I would have loved to be there with the survivors, but I had just lost two of my children and was trying to get through graduate school while rearing my daughter's children.

Wow! Life!

I regret so much that I wasn't there and would love to talk with anyone who was--if anyone remains.

Rosanna West Walker

tragedy well beyond 50 years

My Dad's parents were killed in this crash. He was 15 years old at the time and the death of his parents ruined his and his siblings future. I think that the facts surrounding the crash are cloudy, and while I haven't seen any documentation yet, my Dad told me that there was evidence of the pilot committing suicide from testimony during a lawsuit brought against United Airlines by Sylvania, the company my Grandfather was working for at the time of the crash. Im not going to detail the exact information here as it is very troubling, but the pilot was quoted as telling his mother that morning that she "would never see him again". I am in the Denver Airport as I write this, and will be visiting the cash site for the first time this weekend. My Dad is now 70 and we have only recently started discussing the details and associated impact of the crash. When I told him I was going to be visiting the site, he said that he had tried to go there a few times in the past, but never was able to bring himself closer than 20 miles before backing out. I am bummed to hear Mel passed away and will always be grateful for his keeping the flame burning for the poor victims of this air disaster. And yes, I am named after my Grandfather who was one of the two couples who "won" the coin toss, although my Dad had said that the three men drew straws for the available seats.

Flight 409

I am thankful to know that people have taken the time to make comments because it resolves questions. Most of the articles are about the cleanup and how folks were effected by what they saw and experienced. But what I want to do is let everone know that 66 people died on that mountain and they probably didn't know what hit them. One of the 66 people was my boyhood friend. His name is John Rice who had signed up with the air force to serve his country and was on his way for basic training.He was just 18 years old.

John and I lived about 2 miles from each other. We were always together, road bikes together, went hunting, camping and even got into trouble together.

In 1955 the year of the crash, my mother and her sister moved to Oregon. John And I started writing to each other and the last time I heard from John was a letter from his parents informing me of his death.

I don't know if I experienced pain, back then like I feel it now. Time does change the painful moments in our life but somehow they keep coming back.


Thank all of you who were responsible for the memorial plaque.



Ken Re: John Rice

He was my uncle. I was only a few months old when he died. I do know my dad, James Rice and his dad, Elmer Rice went to the crash site to search for Johnny. My dad said all they found was a pair of bloody jeans. They knew they belonged to Johnny because his pocketknife was still in the pocket. My dad will be 84in December. I plan to take him to the memorial this Spring. He still talks about the loss of his youngest brother.

Mel Duncan's

My godfather and his wife, one of my mother's older sister, were killed in this crash, so I really appreciate this report.  I have forwared it to my siblings.  Is there any way I can get a copy of "Flight 409 - Tragedy at Medicine Bow Peak" by Mel Duncan?  Amazon doesn't have a copy, and a Google search only turned up this article's references to that book?

If someone reading this has a copy he or she is willing to sell, please contact me.

Richard Leary

6356 Maryland Driv

Los Angeles CA 90048

[email protected]

Passenger List

I believe my husbands first cousin once removed died on flight 409. Her name was Betty and she was one of the members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I have heard that the members of the choir were warned not to take that flight.  I also thought she was single but have recently been told she was married and may have left behind a small child.  Anyway I am looking to find a passenger list of flight 409 to confirm her being on it.



Terri Angerbauer

Passenger list

Terri, I am Mel Duncan's niece and we are in the process of getting booklets for the gentleman in above comment.  I am sure Mel's family must have a passenger list, as he tried to contact as many as he could for the dedication ceremony.  If you could give me a contact email, I will be happy to forward it to Mel's wife and son.  Ellen Alles


Dear Ellen,

I beg you to give me a copy of anything you know about--no matter how small or trivial seeming. Please help me get some information and closure on this crash.

It ruined my family forever.

My grandmother, Georgie May Bradshaw West, and her son Earl West Jr. were on this flight. My mother, Bonnie Jean West Walker found out about the crash of her mother and brother on the news on the way to airport to pick them up.

Uncle Earl doesn't even have a headstone because United would only pay for one.

My mother was never the same.

Please answer to my personal email and tell me how to get copies of the above. It would mean so much to me. I am the only one left in my family.

[email protected]


PO Box 2443, Borrego Springs, CA 92004

Best, Rosanna Walker

Need to Keep Talking About this

I am struck, when I read my family history and think about our lives, how nothing went normally for our family as a result of this accident.


My Grandfather William Burgin died in this crash

Dear Ellen,

Sorry to write such a lengthy post, but this article hit home for me.

My Grandfather William Herman Burgin died in this crash.  He and my grandmother Lorraine, mother, and two uncles lived in Denver, where he had boarded the plane so he could get to Salt Lake City.  He had a mine and was going to check on it.  He was only in his 30s.  He served in the US Army Air Corps in World War II and was an airplane mechanic.  I am very proud to say he liberated French Jews from Maulthausen, Austria towards the end of the war and helped fly them back home.  He was a Missouri Republican who voted for Harry Truman in '48 because Truman integrated the troops and my grandfather was so angry at the racism he'd seen directed at African American troops during World War II.  

Ellen, I am profoundly grateful that your uncle Mel did this.  I had no idea he even got the plaque approved and made with his own funds or that there was a ceremony in 2001.  What a beautiful person.  It brings tears to my eyes.  It really devastated my family.  It happened 20 days before my mother's 12th birthday.  They could only identify Grandpa Bill through his dental records.  

My grandmother is still alive and will turn 94 in June!  :-)  She was a widow for 32 years.  Her brother Joe also died in a plane crash.  It was in a test flight in Idaho in World War II.  He was inspired to become a pilot when they were kids in the 1920s by Charles Lindbergh.  

1955 was the year Disneyland opened.  My great uncle, in an effort to cheer my mom and uncles up, took them there.  They refused to go except by train.  To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the crash, my grandma, step-grandpa, my parents, and myself went to Disneyland.  It was a strange thing to do, but I'm glad we did it.  Even now my mom get's noticeably tense when we fly.  I always pray before I fly.

Coincidentally, about two weeks after your uncle dedicated the monument, I had recently started working on Capitol Hill.  On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was headed for us, and those heroes on board saved my life and thousands of others'.  To be honest, had I been killed that day, it would have probably destroyed my grandma.  I think one person can only endure so many plane crashes.  I called my grandma last July when I was stranded at SFO airport because of the Asiana crash.  I didn't want her to worry.

If you could please send me a copy of your uncle's report, I would be extremely appreciative.  It changed my family members' lives forever.  

My address is:

Julia Gray

473 Le Ann Drive

Fairbanks, Alaska 99701

[email protected]

God bless you and your uncle.  I wish I could have met him and thanked him in person for his generosity and consideration for our families and all the other families whose lives were changed that day due to pilot error.  I remember hearing about lawsuits against United Airlines.  

For other families posted here who want to keep in touch, please feel free to contact me.  I can hook you up with my mom's e-mail address.  Her name is Carolyn.  She did not even begin to feel any sense of peace or comfort until she was in high school and read the poem "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant in English class.  Has she gotten over this accident?  No, and never will.  She does not believe in God or Heaven.  I read somewhere that this crash is what lead to radar being used in civil aviation.  



My Uncle-John Rice

I was a few months old when my uncle died in this crash. He had just turned 18 and joined the service. He was on his way to California to complete the process. My dad and my grandfather left Colorado to help in the search. They found Jonny's bloody jeans and they knew they were his because his pocket knife was in the pocket. My grandmother kept all of the newspaper articles regarding the crash. My dad now has them. I want totake my dad to view this memorial this Spring as I feel it will help him heal from the loss of his youngest brother.

Anne Rice