Vail Valley plane crash survivor, rescuers meet in Swiss village
CELERINA, Switzerland — A tiny village in the shadow of Vail’s Swiss sister city, St. Moritz, was the site of a July 18 reunion of a North Atlantic airplane crash survivor and two of his rescuers. The village of Celerina welcomed Vail Valley resident Fred Caruso and two of his Swiss rescuers, Pierre-Andre Reymond and Walter Wunderlin, both former seamen.
The three first met six hours after the late night mid-Atlantic crash of Flying Tiger Lines Flight 923 on Sept. 23, 1962. That was when the Swiss freighter MS Celerina, named for the Swiss village, intercepted and plucked Caruso’s life raft packed with traumatized survivors from the storm-swept seas.
At the time of the crash, Caruso, who is now an Eagle Ranch resident, was 21 years old and was one of 40 U.S. Army paratroopers flying from Maguire Air Force base in New Jersey to Frankfurt, Germany. There were a total of 76 men, women and children aboard. Twenty-eight of those perished.
Reymond, 19 at the time, was working as a ship deckhand and took a three-minute long film of the raging seas the afternoon before the crash. Wunderlin, who was 29, was the ship’s carpenter who voluntarily descended into the mass of injured humanity on the raft and helped hoist survivors to the deck. Both were born and raised in Switzerland. All 35 members of the ship’s crew, most of whom were Italian, participated in the rescue and provided the survivors with food, clothes, beds and blankets throughout the three-day storm.
The aircraft was a Flying Tiger Lines four-engine Lockheed Super Constellation chartered by the U.S. Army. Following the failure of one of its engines and hours of tense emergency preparation, the propeller-driven plane lost two more engines and had to ditch 500 miles west of Ireland in the night at the height of the storm.
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All 48 of those who survived, plus three who died on the raft, occupied one single 25-person life raft that for six hours pitched, bobbed and spun in the darkness until its interception by the ship. The MS Celerina was carrying a cargo of wheat headed toward Antwerp, Belgium, from Port Churchill in Hudson Bay, Northern Canada. The ship changed its course in response to the airplane captain’s SOS.
The freighter Celerina was owned by the Suisse-Atlantique shipping company headquartered in Reneus, Switzerland, near the city of Lausanne. The firm named all of its ships after Swiss villages.
Because of the extreme political tensions concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fact that all passengers were in some way related to the military, the event received virtually no publicity and was never recognized with any sort of memorial. Caruso wrote a book about the crash and how it affected his life, which ultimately led to him becoming Irish. It was published in 2007 with the title of “Born Again Irish.” That referred to the fact that he had been air lifted from the MS Celerina and taken to Mercy Hospital in Cork, Ireland, where he began his new life path as an Irishman. He is the administrator and editor of the Flying Tiger Memorial web site at http://www.flyingtiger923.com.