EAGLE - Eagle Valley author and airplane crash survivor, Fred Caruso of Eagle Ranch, is in County Cork, Ireland, retracing the route of an international life-saving rescue operation that occurred 50 years ago this September.
Caruso, whose pen name is "O'Caruso," was one of 76 passengers and crew aboard a Flying Tiger Lines Super Constellation flight from New Jersey to Frankfurt, Germany on Sept. 23, 1962. The aircraft was forced to ditch in the North Atlantic at night during a raging storm some 500 miles off of the west coast of Ireland. The crash tore off the right wing, split an opening in the cabin hull and hurled passengers, seats and equipment, crushing some under a pile of tangled debris.
The passengers of Flying Tiger Flight 923 included mostly military officers and their families on vacation, traveling for relocation or other purposes. In addition, some 30 newly graduated, combat-ready paratroopers, including Caruso, were on their way to beef up U.S. military support surrounding the Soviet Union's aggressive construction of the "death" fence along the border between West and East Germany.
The plane sank quickly as 51 crash survivors frantically climbed into and piled up in a single, 15-foot-wide, 25-person life raft that had been tossed out of the back door of the aircraft. Four other life rafts stowed in the wings failed to inflate or disappeared on impact. Three passengers died in the crammed, wind-tossed life raft during the next six hours of enduring frigid 10 to 12-foot high waves.
The rescue ship that intercepted the desperate survivors some six hours after the crash was a Swiss freighter, The Celerina, with a crew of 35. It was carrying a load of wheat from Nova Scotia to Belgium. Crew members gave up their cabins and beds and provided food for the remaining survivors over the following five-day period.
The storm raged for three days, making the delivery of medical supplies extremely difficult and an airlift of injured impossible. On day three, when the weather cleared, The Celerina was within eight miles of the Irish Coast near Cork City. Seventeen of the most severely injured were airlifted from the ship by ambulance helicopters to Cork Airport and then transferred to Mercy Hospital in Cork City. Many injuries were the result of chemical burns caused by aviation fuel and salt water rubbing into the skin of survivors packed so tightly in the tiny raft.
While in Ireland, Caruso will be retracing the airlift with a delegation of six, including one crew member of the rescue ship, two Irish members of the first Cork Airport Emergency Rescue team, an Irish fisherman who witnessed the event from his trawler below and two Swiss journalists representing radio, TV and newspaper media.
The party will assemble on the Irish coast at a point known as Galley Head, where a critical decision was made to transfer the injured directly to Cork Airport rather than make the exchange on the ocean cliff.
They will move on to the Cork Airport, which had only been opened for one year at the time, to discuss the evolution of rescue practices over the past 50 years. From there, the group will move to Mercy Hospital, now a part of the Cork University medical system, to meet with hospital administrators and caregivers to exchange ideas on how disasters are handled now compared with 50 years ago. One Catholic nun, Sister Laurenta, who was a nurse in the hospital reception station and who was photographed assisting survivors that day, is still living on the hospital campus.
Caruso said the purpose of the exercise is to reflect on the events of 50 years ago, to acknowledge the large and international body of people involved in the operation and to memorialize and honor the deceased and the families and friends of all involved who shared the agony of the disaster. The ditching of Flying Tiger Flight 923 is considered one of the 10 most horrific disasters in Irish history. The event was publicized in Ireland and the United States in September 1962 at about the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Caruso is building a memorial website to commemorate the event. It can be found at www.flyingtiger923.com. The public is invited to view the diversity of participants and points of view and to add comments. Caruso is the author of the book "Born Again Irish," which delves deeply into the crash and how the event and subsequent trauma drove him to become Irish and acquire property and a home on the Emerald Island.
Caruso lives in Eagle Ranch with his wife, Ellen. He is the author of four books, including his most recent memoir "Born Again Irish," which chronicles the crash of Flying Tiger Flight 923. Their daughter Tanya Caruso teaches at Avon Elementary School and their daughter, Andrea Caruso, is the guidance counselor at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.