ELIZABETHTOWN — That unexpected $20 in a jacket pocket, the remote discovered in the netherworld of sofa corners — everyone loves a surprise find, especially when the items have been forgotten for decades.
In August 1962, Bladen County’s Mattie Cash said “I do” to her boyfriend Charlie. Having previously served in the Air Force, Charlie had reinlisted, but to serve in the Army this time around. Just before their marriage, he had completed a one-year tour in Vietnam. The couple wed and settled down in Fayetteville to live a military life. In 1970, while still living near Fort Bragg, Charlie got called up for a second tour to Vietnam.
“Of course I worried about him going back,” recalled Mattie. “Everyone worried.”
Her fears, though, had more to do with what would happen in the foreign country than what would happen before he arrived.
In November 1970, Charlie said good-bye to Mattie and boarded a flight that would take him from Fayetteville to Anchorage, Ala., with a stopover in Washington, D.C. Once in Anchorage, Charlie and 228 other people — many of them servicemen — hopped aboard a Capital International Airways DC8 jetliner out of Anchorage International Airport. The day was overcast with light sleet, but sand had been applied to the runway, and the plane had been de-iced and refueled for the 7.5-hour flight.
As Charlie settled into his seat near the back of the plane, he was approached by a gentleman asking if he would switch seats. The passenger had a seat over the wing of the plane, but didn’t like the assignment. In what would be a serendipitous decision, Charlie agreed.
As the fuel-laden plane began taxiing down the runway, it struggled to attain lift. Witnesses said the plane’s nose lifted, then turned downward as the pilot attempted to abort liftoff on the small stretch of runway left. The plane slithered over the slippery runway, up a small mound and across a depression in the earth, cracking into pieces as it came to rest nearly three-quarters of a mile from the runway’s end.
Survivors and witnesses described small explosions at various times of the event. Some said they witnessed explosions as the nose lifted, some said it happened as the plane’s nose turned down, and still others said two large explosions occurred after the plane skidded to a stop, including a ball of fire hurtling skyward.
Though a cause of the crash was never identified, 46 passengers, some children among them, perished in the crash, which damaged the rear of the plane more than the front. Included among the dead was the man sitting in Charlie’s original seat in the back.
Mattie found out about the crash, she believes, by a call from the president.
“I can’t swear to it, because I got the call at 5 o’clock in the morning, but it seems like that’s who it was,” she said.
Initially thinking it was some kind of cruel joke, Mattie said she didn’t realize until a couple of days later the phone call was genuine, when Charlie called her from the hospital to tell her he was OK. Though he lost all his belongings, Charlie was released with minor injuries. The experience, though, seemed to stay with him, Mattie said.
“He never talked about it much after it happened,” she recalled. “He said it was devastating, but he didn’t say much else.”
Rather than leaving him with a fear of flying, Mattie said Charlie went on to become a paratrooper.
“Every time he would get on a plane, I would just hope it would get where it was going safely,” she said.
Charlie passed away in 2015, and when going through some things recently, Mattie came across newspaper articles and magazine clippings about the crash more than four decades earlier. They brought back all of the memories and emotions.
As for herself, Mattie said she has only flown once since Charlie’s experience, and doesn’t have any desire to do it again.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.