Fifty years ago, my father and grandfather were killed in a plane crash at Lake Tahoe, California. I was seven years old, the youngest of five siblings, and all through my adolescence and adulthood, no one in my family ever talked about the crash. The subject was verboten, forbidden, not to be mentioned because the shock was so deep, so numbing that it could only be locked away into a box, never to be opened.
Then in September of 2014, my sister forwarded me an article from the local paper of my hometown of Salinas, California about a man who had been orphaned from that plane crash. According to the article, Bill had been five years old at the time and had recently visited the crash site near Lake Tahoe. He wanted to confront the crash details to finally deal with and accept them. He offered his phone number in case other families wanted to speak to him.
“You should really go up on the mountain,” said Bill when I called him. We had attended the same high school but our paths had never crossed. “I found it very peaceful and it gave me a sense of closure,” he said in a soft and gentle voice.
He referred me to Tim, who had also lost both parents in the crash and now lived in the Tahoe area. Tim had been to the site numerous times and had constructed a makeshift memorial on the mountain. He offered to guide me to the site when we connected by phone.
“I don’t know where you are in your healing,” said Tim. Several years earlier, the Tahoe paper had published an article about Tim and the crash site. From that article, Tim had connected with over thirty people who had lost loved ones on that plane. “Some people have found it comforting to visit the site and had a sense of closure,” he said. “You may find it healing.”
I wondered whether I ever had a sense of closure. I considered myself pretty far along in my healing from the tragedy. After high school, I moved away from Salinas to attend college, then graduate school. I married and settled in Los Angeles where I raised a family. I earned a doctorate degree and had a successful career in education. Although I always felt a sense of acute loss, I had moved on with my life.
But I had never fully researched the facts of the plane crash. I had never asked my mother and grandmother (both now dead) about the details. I wondered if my investigation would lead to closure or deeper understanding. As a researcher, I love numbers and facts. My favorite part of my doctoral dissertation was the literature review where I searched for citations, pored over articles and looked up new references until I had a full understanding of the subject and could synthesize and integrate the new knowledge. I wondered if it would be true in this case. Would I get a sense of satisfaction in knowing everything I could and by unearthing all the details?
“You have to have a heart of steel to listen to some of these stories,” said Tim. He had interviewed one of the first responders to the crash site years earlier. “There are some really gruesome details.”
Bring it on, I thought. I was consumed with a desire to know everything. I gathered articles from Bill and Tim, called my siblings to see what they remembered and joined a newspaper archive service to find every detail I could about the crash.
I remember my father and maternal grandfather leaving for the airport on the morning of March 1, 1964, for an overnight gambling trip to the casinos in South Lake Tahoe. My grandfather, grandmother and ten-year-old aunt were visiting from Halifax, Nova Scotia, contemplating a permanent move to California. My father had been excited to show my grandfather the beauty of Lake Tahoe. At age thirty-six, my father, a Chinese immigrant, owned the Palace Super Market in Castroville, where we lived and had a quarter partnership in a much larger store in Salinas called Monte Mart. According to newspaper accounts, they boarded Paradise Airlines Flight 901A at the Salinas airport at 9 a.m. along with sixteen other passengers. Ten of the passengers were employees from the Monte Mart store.
The plane picked up another sixty-three passengers in San Jose for a total of eighty-one and four crew members. The Lockheed Constellation four-engine plane flew toward the Tahoe Valley Airport and, eleven minutes before landing, encountered cloud cover and snowy conditions. At 11:21 a.m., the pilot indicated he was going off instruments to make a visual landing. The last radio message at 11:29 was “Flight 901…” and then nothing.
Hours after the fuel would have been exhausted there was still no sign of the plane. A search of the lake began with two cabin cruisers scouring a ten-mile area in gusty winds, in case the plane had hit the water and sank. Air searches were not possible due to blizzard-like conditions, but rescue squads were on standby at Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco and Stead Air Force Base in Reno, in case there was a break in the weather. By late afternoon on Sunday, investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in Washington D.C. were already en route to California.
I don’t remember what we did that Sunday after my father and grandfather left. I assume my mother went to work at the Castroville store and my grandmother stayed home to watch us. My aunt remembers my mother receiving a phone call Sunday night that the plane was missing. Later that night, my brother Greg was watching the TV news, which reported that a plane bound for Lake Tahoe had been lost in a blizzard.
“I think that’s Dad’s plane,” he said and a sense of dread fell over the room. But no one spoke to confirm it. We went to bed as usual.
A reporter from the Oakland Tribune described how he waited in the airport terminal in Lake Tahoe throughout the night for news of the plane, hovering near the service desk, hoping the phone would ring with news. By 4 a.m., more news reporters and cameramen arrived, as well as families of passengers on the flight, anxiously awaiting word on the plane.
At daybreak, the snow had stopped and the temperature hovered near zero. A massive air search ensued, with more than fifty planes, sixteen helicopters and hundreds of men on the ground, searching the region. At 7:36 a.m. the wreckage of the plane was spotted by an Air Force pilot in his helicopter at Genoa Peak, off Kingsbury grade on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. The plane had clipped the tops of trees then hit the side of the mountain with such force that it was scattered over an area 200 feet wide and over 1,000 feet long. The nose wheel of the plane had been flung across the top of the ridge. The biggest piece of the wreckage, the Constellation’s three-ruddered tail section, was stuck upright in three feet of snow. From the air, the Air Force pilot could see broken off engine parts. Another helicopter landed at the wreckage site and an Air Force physician confirmed that there were no survivors.
In Castroville, we didn’t know any of that when we woke up that morning. My mother sent us all to school. Talk of the lost plane was everywhere, in the play yard and in the classroom. Mrs. Neuman, my gray-haired second grade teacher, mentioned it first thing in the morning but no one knew if the plane had been found. I raised my hand.
“I think my father was on that plane,” I said, in a steady voice.
She was visibly shaken. She knew my father from parent-teacher conferences for my older siblings. She sent someone to the office with a note, probably wanting confirmation. Later that morning, she must have gotten the message that yes, he was on that plane and maybe they already knew that the wreckage had been found.
“Cynthia has such nice handwriting,” she said to the class as she walked by my desk. Mrs. Neuman was never that kind to me. I knew then that something was wrong, that it probably was my father’s plane and he was lost.
I don’t know when the message was conveyed to my mother. I do know from the newspaper articles that at 8:30 that morning, the CAB investigators were meeting in Oakland with the owner of the airline when they heard that the wreckage had been found and that there were no survivors. By that afternoon, when the school bus left me off on our driveway, I knew something was wrong. Cars lined the street and filled the driveway. I walked in the front door and my mother and grandmother were sitting on the beige couch in the living room, flanked by Chinese women. I stood in front of them and heard my mother say in Chinese, “Ah Yen, your father has passed away.”
I ran into the bedroom at the end of the hall that I shared with my three sisters. The beds were still unmade. It was all wrong. My grandmother always made up the beds after we left for school. I fell onto my side of the bed, crying into my pillow. I felt a hand patting my back, but it was one of the Chinese women from the living room. I wanted my grandmother.
In the hallway, I could hear my brother crying and Mr. Louie telling him, “You are the man of the house now.”
No, I thought, as I cried even harder. Not him! He’s not even fourteen and he always teased me until I cried. He cannot be the man of the house now.
My sisters and aunt came home from school and the same scene played out–my mother telling them, followed by more sobbing and weeping. As we were reeling from the news in Castroville, a bulldozer, Snow Cat and several jeeps were plowing a road through twelve-foot drifts for the teams of deputies and volunteers that were trying to reach the crash site at Lake Tahoe. Swarms of media gathered at the trailhead, hoping to gain access to the site.
When the team got close to the site late in the afternoon, they found snowshoe tracks leading in multiple directions. Then they encountered dismembered bodies buried in snow and airplane seats still smoldering. From his interview with the first responder, Tim told me that the sheriff’s team found empty wallets among the frozen bodies. The snowshoe tracks were from looters who had reached the site first. Several bodies had severed fingers where rings had been cut off. That night, two deputies camped in the snow to guard one part of the wreckage site, stringing a rope with aluminum cans to alert them of intruders. Notices were posted to warn others not to take anything from the site. None of the human remains could be removed until investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Civil Aeronautics Board would arrive the next day.
I don’t remember how long we stayed home from school. The days after the crash were a blur of red eyes, somber faces, and my mother laid up in bed and not emerging from her room. Visitors flocked to our house in Castroville, a black wreath was hung on the door and neighbors delivered casseroles. I cried every night before I fell asleep, the longing for my father so strong yet there was no place to hang those feelings, no way to process the reality of his death. I had dreams of him returning bandaged with a broken leg or arm and telling us it was a mistake, he survived. I longed to feel the cold clinging to his tweed jacket when he came home at night from work and he wrapped me in a bear hug if I was awake. I wanted to sit in his lap on his lounge chair like I did on his evenings off, trying to synchronize my breathing with his. I wanted to hear him call me “Baby” with the gleam in his eye and his special smile. I wanted to ride in the front seat of his brand new Cadillac when I had the rare treat of him to myself.
The newspapers reported that it took weeks to recover and identify all the victims. Heaters were brought in to melt the snow to aid in excavation. The body bags were taken down the mountain to Minden, Nevada, six miles to the east of the crash. After two days, the remains of fifty-two bodies had been recovered, which overwhelmed the small Basque-German town of 550. A makeshift morgue was constructed at the Carson Valley Improvement Club, where tables were constructed to lay out the corpses. FBI investigators made identifications and the local mortician was accused of overcharging for embalming services. On the mountain, a team of fifty men, including insurance investigators, two doctors and volunteers, continued the recovery process.
I don’t know the details of how or when my father and grandfather were transported back to Salinas. My brother Greg remembers helping to pick out the caskets, bronze for my father and silver for my grandfather. There was a wake the night before the funeral. My oldest sister, Donna, and Greg remember how hard my mother and grandmother cried as they knelt in front of the closed caskets, wailing and keening.
“I’d never seen Grandma cry that hard,” said Greg. “I was scared.”
I had no memory of that night and wondered if I had repressed the memory because it was so traumatic. But my aunt Georgina, who is three years older than me, said we were not there.
“They didn’t let us go,” she said. “They thought we were too young. We only went to the funeral the next day.”
I have sketchy memories of the funeral that was held on March 12th. A brass band played on the back of a pickup truck to drive away evil spirits during the funeral procession. Mounted next to the band were large black-and-white portraits of my father and grandfather. We drove through Castroville, stopping at the house on Jackson Street, then at the Palace Super Market so their spirits could visit one last time. I remember seeing Mr. Peralta from the sheriff’s office coming out to the sidewalk, taking off his hat and wiping tears from his eyes as the band played. The funeral procession drove past Monte Mart in Salinas, then into the Garden of Memories cemetery for the graveside service.
My father’s casket was covered with an American flag, in honor of the year he served in the U.S. Army as a cook at the tail end of World War II. We watched as the servicemen folded it into a neat triangle, then stood at attention. One of them stepped forward to present to my mother. But she was crying so hard, she could not stand up and motioned to my brother to accept it. The serviceman was persistent, he had to present it to her. I remember wishing he would leave her alone. When it was apparent that she was not going to be able to stand up, he stood in front of my brother and recited his words of thanks. After the caskets were lowered into the ground, we dropped our black armbands on top of the graves, in line with Chinese custom to leave everything associated with the funeral with the deceased.