LAKE PLACID - Many hikers know the site well.
At the top of Wright Peak, about 50 feet below the mountain's summit, there's a wide rock face, roughly 8 to 10 feet in height.
At its center, attached to the rock, is a rusty bronze plaque that contains the names of four U.S. Air Force servicemen: 1st Lt. Rodney D. Bloomgren, 1st Lt. Melvin Spencer, 1st Lt. Albert W. Kandet(z)ki and Airman 1st Class Kenneth R. Jensen.
The mangled remains of an engine of a B-47 bomber sits among the rocks on the summit of Wright Peak in this 1996 picture.
(Photo — Chris Knight)
Scattered on the ground below the plaque are pieces of broken and twisted sheet metal. Nearby, a long, heavy, metal cylinder sits wedged underneath a large boulder.
These are the visible reminders of a tragedy that took place on this mountaintop 50 years ago today.
Sometime in the early morning darkness of Jan. 16, 1962, a U.S. Air Force B-47 jet bomber on a training mission over the North Country veered off course and slammed into Wright Peak's rocky summit, killing its four-man crew and scattering wreckage across the mountainside.
The bomber was last heard from around 2 a.m. on the morning of the 16th when its crew radioed that they were over Watertown. The plane was due back at Plattsburgh Air Force Base at 7 a.m. It never made it.
"I think it was a Tuesday that the plane went missing," said Howard Riley, who was 31 years old and editor of the Enterprise at the time. "They didn't know where it was."
The ground and aerial search was initially focused in Massena and Watertown, where there were reports that flares and fuselage had been seen. But those and other reports proved unfounded, and the search was expanded into the Adirondacks.
Meanwhile, family members of the four airmen were growing anxious.
"That was probably the most difficult part, not knowing where the plane had actually gone down," said Doug Kandetzki, Albert Kandetzki's youngest brother, who was 9 years old at the time.
"The family here were obviously holding out hope, but I think the hope disappeared rather quickly as the days went by," said Dudley Ericson, Rodney Bloomgren's first cousin, who grew up down the street from him in Jamestown, in southwestern New York.
Finally, five days after the plane went missing, an Army search plane spotted part of a wing and open parachutes near the top of Wright Peak.
First search party
Riley joined a group of forest rangers and a state trooper who made an ascent of the mountain that night from the Adirondak Loj. It was nearly midnight when the six-man, snowshoe-clad search party reached the treeline, about 500 feet below Wright's summit.
"It was really wild at the top," Riley said. "The wind was terrific. We were crawling on our bellies, hanging on to little scrub bushes that would come up. It's a wonder we didn't get blown off the mountain."
Jim Lord, who was the Lake Placid area forest ranger from 1961 to 1965, led this first search party.
"We didn't see anything," Lord remembered. "There was no sign of damage. We'd holler and see if there was any response. We wandered around on snowshoes with flashlights for about an hour."
The search party wasn't able to find anything that night and returned to the Loj.
Enterprise news reports from the time say the first pieces of wreckage were located on the mountain's east face just after 11 a.m. on Jan. 22, the morning after the first search party returned.
"The first thing we found that was any real sign of it was the snow was all saturated with JP4, jet fuel," Lord said. "You could just smell it. It was like wading through knee-deep snow that had been sprayed with kerosene."
Later that afternoon, according to the Enterprise reports, several sections of the downed B-47 were located.
"The engine, and a lot of that shattered stuff was strewn around at the top, but all the major pieces - anything that survived it in any size - went right on over the top," Lord said. "The wings must have rotated on their way down through. They were halfway down the slope."
The search had to be called off that afternoon because of 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts and frigid temperatures.
The weather improved the next day, Lord recalled, and searchers were finally able to move down the slope between Algonquin Peak and Wright, where some of the plane's fuselage had been sighted.
"We finally spotted the parachutes," he said. "They had partially deployed and were still hooked to the bodies of the crew. The pilot and co-pilot had gone out through the windshield. We found them not too far apart, way down the slope."
The remains of Bloomgren, the pilot, and Spencer, the co-pilot, were brought out of the woods on sleds through Marcy Dam. The Air Force contacted the families of the two men.
"It ended the anxiety and confirmed their worst fears," said Ericson, who would later be a pall bearer at his cousin's funeral.
Efforts to find the remains of the other airmen, and the recovery of more wreckage, continued for another week-and-a-half. In late January, the Air Force, which had taken charge of the massive search campaign, decided to discontinue it until spring due to heavy snow and bitter cold weather.
When the search resumed in May, Lord said he and a team of Air Force volunteers found the remains of Kandetzki, the B-47's navigator, along with a section of the plane's wing and one of its machine guns.
Jensen's remains were not found. Lord thinks that's because he was sitting in a lower section of the plane that "disintegrated" on impact.
Ironically, Jensen wasn't supposed to be on this flight. He was filling in for another crew member who had become sick.
An investigation determined the unarmed bomber had apparently veered about 30 miles east of its course due to inclement weather and high winds.
Lord said he was told by an Air Force officer that the crew hadn't been flying together for very long. They apparently flew into the 4,580-foot-peak while making a turn to repeat a mock bombing run over Watertown, he said.
One Enterprise report from the time says investigators determined the plane hit just 3 feet below the top of the mountain, while another report says it was closer to 35 feet.
"They just barely clipped it," Lord said.
If it had cleared Wright, however, investigators said the plane was on a collision course with Mount Marcy, the state's highest peak and about 1,000 feet taller than Wright.
While "crew error" was blamed, Doug Kandetzki said equipment failure could have played a role.
"My brother had a lot of previous logbooks from previous flights," he said. "In going through those books, my dad noted that in 80 to 85 percent of the flights, most of the equipment wasn't working - his radar, his altimeter. So basically they're flying blind, and they don't even know how high they are."
The Wright Peak story is perhaps the most well known of many plane crash accounts in the Adirondacks. That's largely because the accident happened at the summit of a frequently visited high peak. For decades, hikers have been able to see, and plunder, pieces of the wreckage.
"For a long time there were people that went up and were toting off the machine guns, and so on," Lord said. "I don't know why it resonated with people for so long, but it certainly did."
Tony Goodwin, son of legendary Adirondack guide Jim Goodwin, was 12 years old and living in Connecticut in January 1962. He said he and his friends couldn't wait to get up to see the site that summer.
"We wanted to see all the wreckage and be a witness to this change in the landscape, "he said. "I remember proudly coming home with a piece of fuel line, or something like that, dangling off my pack. For a while there, it seemed like every kid's room in their summer cottage had a piece of the Wright Peak plane crash debris on display."
The Air Force eventually placed a plaque near the summit. It says the four men died "on a mission preserving the peace of our nation."
The impact of what happened 50 years ago today would be felt for years to come by surviving family members they left behind.
Bloomgren, 26, left behind a wife, Connie, who has since died, and two young children: Cynthia, who was almost 3 years old at the time of the crash, and Steven, who was 18 months. Both now live in Florida, according to Bloomgren's sister, Jeanne Morgenstern. She said she still stays in touch with her niece, Cynthia, and that the family is planning to visit the site of the crash sometime this summer.
Morgenstern, who's now 66, also has something else to remember her late brother by.
"We have a son, and we named him Rodney," she said. "Every once in a while, people will say, 'Is that because of your brother, Rodney?' It was, obviously. He looks like him, too."
Doug Kandetzki and his family came to the Adirondacks the summer after the crash to plant a group of trees as a memorial to Albert, 25, and the three other men who died in the crash. He's also hiked the mountain twice, in 1970 and in 1990.
"It does come up, but certainly not as frequently as it did years ago," Kandetzki said. "He's remembered by all of us, every day."
The Enterprise wasn't able locate any surviving family members of Kenneth Jensen, 22, who hailed from El Cajon, Calif., although Kandetzki recalls that they moved to the Seattle area sometime after the crash.
The newspaper also tried to reach out to Julia Spencer-Fleming, the daughter of the plane's co-pilot, Melvin Spencer, who was from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and was 28 at the time of his death. Spencer-Fleming, a successful author who lives in Maine, didn't return several email messages and messages left with her agent.
However, Spencer-Fleming, who was six months old when her father died, wrote about how her mother got that news on www.commandposts.com, a blog for military families, earlier this year.
"She says she knew they had found him the moment she saw the chaplain walking up to her door for the second time," Spencer-Fleming wrote. "She was an Air Force widow with a six-month-old baby. She was twenty-two years old. She and her child and the remains of her Lieutenant returned to his hometown of Tuscaloosa. There was a salute, and a rifle volley, and the missing man formation. She stood on the cold, dead grass and accepted the folded flag, which sits on an old chest of drawers in my bedroom."