Nfld. & Labrador

Deadly Sabena DC-4 plane crash of 1946 remembered for historic rescue

The Sabena DC-4 air crash just outside of Gander in 1946 is remembered as the largest plane crash of its time and the first major rescue involving helicopters.

'It was wet, it was cold — it was windy,' says former Gander air traffic controller

The Sabena DC-4 crashed into the woods 35 kilometres from Gander, requiring helicopters to rescue survivors. (LT Colonel Ted Allan Morris)

The wreckage of the Sabena Airlines DC-4 airliner remains in the woods near Gander, seventy years after it crashed on a cold, windy morning in 1946. 

Twenty six bodies were buried at the St. Martin-In-The Woods cemetery that sits beside the scrap metal, maintained by members of the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron and 91 Construction Engineering Flight Gander.

The crash is recognized as the largest civilian plane crash of its time and the first large scale rescue using helicopters. 

Frank Tibbo worked as an air traffic controller in Gander and written two books on the Sabena crash after he retired. 

"Well, I started to hear the name of Dr. Martin — and I wondered why they were talking about Dr. Martin," said Tibbo.

Dr. Martin is Captain Samuel P. Martin of the US Army Medical Corp, a man credited with leading a 'miracle' rescue effort of 18 passengers that survived the crash. 

Author Frank Tibbo has wrote two books on the Sabena airplane crash that happened on September 18, 1946. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Discovery of Crash

The plane was flying from Belgium to New York for a diamond exposition. Pilots were preparing to stop in Gander for fuel when the aircraft crashed into the woods 35 kilometres from the airport. 

The plane wasn't discovered until the next day by an overhead civilian flight that circled the crash. 

A member of the search and rescue party attends to a survivor of the crash. (LT Colonel Ted Allan Morris)

"Today of course they would all be evacuated with in hours," said Tibbo. "Those people were there for three days, it was wet, it was cold - it was windy."

It took Dr. Martin and a group of rescuers thirty six hours to reach the crash site. Tibbo says they expected to find four survivors. 

They arrived to find 21 survivors, according to an official report by a helicopter pilot. Five people survived the crash but died the night before they arrived. Dr. Martin believed three more would not survive the night. 

"He knew that he would never be able to get those people back the way he came in," said Tibbo. "Because the trip would kill them."

"He said the only way to get those people out alive was to get a helicopter."

First Large Scale Helicopter Rescue

"There were no helicopters in Newfoundland - there never had been a helicopter in Newfoundland," said Tibbo. "But the helicopters were coming into being in the states."

"The amazing part of it is - they found two helicopters that were going to be put in storage," said Tibbo. 

"They took them apart and put them aboard these two C-54s, which is similar to a DC-4. They flew all night to Gander, got to Gander, unloaded them, put them back together again, and started to fly."

A mechanic works to re-assemble a helicopter flown to Gander in pieces to rescue survivors of the crash. (LT Colonel Ted Allan Morris)

Lieutenant August Kleisch, one of four helicopter pilots part of the rescue, wrote in his official report that it took four and a half hours to assemble one of the helicopters. 

While the helicopters were rebuilt, Dr. Martin tended to survivors. 

"He worked almost three days complete without any sleep, and in so doing saved several of the victims," said Tibbo. 

"If he hadn't been there, there would be more people that would have died."

Exhaustive Recovery Effort 

Tibbo says one of the interesting parts of the rescue is the coordinated rescue effort to bring the survivors from the crash site to Gander.

"The helicopter landing pad was a couple hundred of feet from the crash," said Tibbo. "The helicopter would go to the edge of Caribou lake."

The survivors would then get into a small raft and be pulled to a waiting float plane. 

A rescue team carries a survivor onto a raft to transport to a float plane which will fly the survivor back to Gander. (LT Colonel Ted Allan Morris)

"They would take off and fly to Gander and land on the runway," said Tibbo, adding the rescued survivors would then be taken to hospital. 

Even though the crash site was just 35 km from the airport — the crew didn't trust flying the helicopter the entire way. 

"They had the Achilles heel of tail rotor problems," said Tibbo. "A lot of accidents and incidents of tail rotors being broken and they hadn't perfected it in such a way that they would be good for any length of time. So they said let's use the helicopters as little as possible and get the job done."

Of the forty four people on the plane, 18 were rescued from the crash site. Tibbo says one person died in the hospital. He believes that without the leadership of Dr. Martin there may have been more lives lost. 

Frank Tibbo credits Captain Samuel P. Martin (standing, centre) for his hard work as the driving factor behind a mission the saw 18 crash survivors rescued from the crash site. (LT Colonel Ted Allan Morris)

"They were a dedicated bunch — inspired no doubt by Dr. Martin," said Tibbo, who met Dr. Martin after writing his book "Charlie Baker George: The story of Sabena OOCBG"

"He was a very modest man — and one of my heroes."