History On The Mountain

Martin noticed it first. 

He didn’t say anything about it, but thought it was odd there were so many crosses leaning against such a large boulder on the side of the road. He assumed the crosses were for driving fatalities, and wondered how so many could happen at that one spot.

I didn’t see it.

I was too busy in the passenger seat, looking at our cell phone while navigating our way to Stacey’s house along a winding, tree-covered mountain road over the weekend.

It wasn’t until later that evening when we learned the story behind the rock and the crosses.

It was the point of impact when an airliner carrying 85 passengers and 7 crew members slammed into the side of the mountain on its approach to Dulles airport nearly 40 years ago.

We learned that little tidbit as we were sitting around in Stacey’s house, chit-chatting with the other adults. We were sharing stories of personal haunting experiences, things we remembered from childhood that scared us, or even things we experienced as adults that made us pause. This was to be expected, I suppose. Stacey is an author who has published several “horror-lite” books and articles, and with a background in anthropology and archaeology and a passion for both history and the paranormal, her stories are always good.

So, it’s not surprising that we were talking of such things.

However, I think it was one of her neighbors who first brought it up, and Stacey confirmed that the spot Martin had seen on the side of the road was, in fact, the scene of a violent and horrific tragedy that took place decades earlier.

Of course, once we got home late that evening, I got online and immediately researched it.

It was TWA Flight 514, and it crashed on December 1, 1974 shortly after 11 a.m.

The flight originated in Indianapolis, Indiana and had a lay-over in Columbus, Ohio. It was meant to land at Washington National Airport, but due to weather, was re-directed to land at Dulles Airport instead.

Almost 40 years ago, the tops of these trees were all razed at the same height. Many witnesses referenced a “lawnmower” effect, saying it looked as if one had been wiped across the tops.

Because it happened in 1974, there wasn’t an avalanche of information readily available on the Internet. Not like other, more recent airplane disasters.

But I did find quite a bit online, especially since that specific plane crash changed a lot in the aviation industry. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was split as to what caused the crash, and eventually it was decided it was a combination of many things, but mostly miscommunication and language used between the pilots and the air traffic controller. They learned that six weeks earlier, a United flight almost met the same fate due to the same miscommunication errors, but the pilots were able to divert the plane in time.

So flights became safer because of the lessons learned from the crash of TWA Flight 514.

And one of the first black brigadier generals in the U.S. Army, Brig. Gen. Roscoe Conklin Cartwright, died in the crash along with his wife. A book was written about the passengers and the changes made in the aviation industry.

But for whatever reason, this particular plane crash didn’t get memorialized like others, and in fact, one passenger’s family was still trying for some type of memorial at the site 25 years later in 1999, but the owner of the property wasn’t too keen on there being anything calling attention to the fact that something so horrible happened there.

So the crosses are there, and a small plaque listing the names of those killed. It’s not permanent. It’s just placed there, balanced on top.

But in that space, even without the small plaque and the crosses, I’m sure a person coming upon the spot would know something definitely happened there.

On Sunday, as we were driving home, I had Martin pull up alongside the boulders so I could get some pictures. I intended just to hop out, take a few, and jump right back in since it’s just a two-lane road there on the mountain.

But as soon as I stepped out and closed the door, Martin pulled away, leaving me there. He saw a space up ahead where he could park off to the side and wait for me.

But it left me alone in that spot.

And it was quiet.

I turned to face west, and could see the very trees that in the old black-and-white photos were razed and cut away decades ago. They’ve grown back, of course. But they’re not as thick and tall as those around.

I turned to the east, and faced the boulders.

When the plane hit, the nose cone slammed into the boulders and disintegrated. In my online research, I read many accounts made by locals who lived near the spot, who recalled where they were and what they were doing when they heard the sound of the airplane hit. Many said they could feel it, even being miles away. With the sort of force, the debris flew up the mountain and into the trees up there.

The most identifiable piece of aircraft was the tail with TWA on it. The rest was just bits and pieces, spread over a large part of the land. Even now, decades later, folks can still find things up there. In my Internet search, I’ve found blog and forum posts and pictures from as recent as last year, describing things like singed and dated clothing, credit cards, wires, and aircraft pieces found up in those woods.

I didn’t dare go up there myself.

My curiosity allowed for me to stand there at the boulders, but that was enough for me. For one thing, Martin and the kids were waiting for me down the road. But also, while I wouldn’t say I was spooked, I was definitely aware that there was an energy that demanded from me some respect and reverence. The idea of picking around up there and disturbing the area just didn’t appeal to me.

That kind of energy, the damage, the loss of life … I think that sort of thing stays around and gets absorbed in the places where these things happen. It was similar to how I felt in the 9/11 chapel at the Pentagon, at the 9/11 site in New York City, the Oklahoma City memorial site, and on the Civil War battlefields surrounding our area. And on the hill in Northern Kentucky where the Beverly Hills supper club caught fire and killed 165 people, to include some of my father’s cousins.

Life goes on, of course.

But I think it’s definitely worth something to pause, learn and reflect wherever history presents itself.