One light – One raft – 51 people

“Then I had an inspiration.
I went back to the cockpit for a flashlight. 
By that time
 the water in the cabin was waist deep.
No one else was in the plane. Again at the back door,
I was swept out to sea by a wave.”  — Capt. John D. Murray

The fate of 51 passengers in a 15-foot wide, rubber life-raft, built for 25, was at stake. One simple flashlight helped guide spotter planes and the Swiss freighter Celerina to the critical point of interception and rescue.  Gale force winds swept the craft without a sail some 22 miles over six hours. Three died in the raft as it tossed and turned relentlessly while awaiting rescue.

The tragic situation was complicated further by a chance act of fate. The lone life-raft had inflated upside down. Survivors started piling in long before anyone noticed the error. Once it was discovered, no one was willing to get out to turn the raft right side up. Everyone would have to get out in order to do such a thing. Many could not get out regardless of the fact that their life might depend on it.

This unfortunate situation meant that the raft had no emergency lighting at all. The emergency lighting that rimmed the top edge of the life raft was facing down into the frigid sea. The raft’s emergency kit, which included a flashlight and emergency flares, was zipped into the pouch on the floor of the craft. The floor of the raft was facing down as well, and no one would ever consider swimming under the overcrowded raft in an attempt to retrieve it.

Packed like sardines.

51 people packed in a raft for 25.

There was no light at all in the pitch black sea, except for one flashlight picked up in a last minute action as the sinking Flying Tiger disappeared into the raging water.

Capt. John Murray told reporters when the rescue ship reached Antwerp, Belgium, that the aircraft was completely vacated within minutes after the ditching. He checked all of the emergency exits and all of the seats he could see as he waded down to the rear hatch.

Murray at CAB Hearing

Capt. Murray at CAB

“Then I had an inspiration.” He told reporters, “I went back to the cockpit for a flashlight. By that time the water was waist deep. No one else was on the plane. At the back door again, alone, I was swept out to sea by an ice-cold wave.” Murray had to swim hard to find the raft, for at least ten minutes, and by all reports he was the last person pulled into the raft.

Once in the raft, a paratrooper, Pvt. Joe E. Hoffer of Birmingham, Alabama asked if anyone had a flashlight.

Capt. Murray told reporters: “The raft was so crowded that it took me several minutes to get it out of my pocket because of the people piled on my lap.” He himself was seated on someone else’s lap. They were all wedged together in sardine fashion and any movement was an ordeal.

“Pvt. Hoffer — that boy’s a real hero — he used it to flash the plane which had pinpointed our position. It circled so low that at times they had us in their landing lights,” Murray said.

[That aircraft was an Air Force C-118 Globe Master described in
“The Eyes and Ears of Rescue,” posted this blog on January 18, 2012]

Murray went on to say, “That torch brought to us the rescue ship Celerina.”

Months later, at Idlewild Airport in New York City (now Kennedy Airport) the Federal Aviation Administration took note of the dire situation of the survivors of Flying Tiger 923 owing to the lack of emergency lights of any kind and ordered a number of changes for the sake of aviation safety. Among them were:

1 – life rafts would be required to be reversible with rim lights visible and emergency kits accessible from both sides.

2 – individual life vests from then on would include their own lighting so floating passengers could be spotted.

At that time, in late 1962, commercial US airlines did not require individual life-vest lights. According to a story in the New York Times, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommended in 1957 that all individual life vests have “a means of electric illumination” as standard equipment.

But the United States Government exercised its prerogative of disagreeing with the requirement. Under the rules of the ICAO – a United Nations specialized agency with 98 members – the United States thereby was freed from any obligation to comply with the recommendation.

A spokesman for the agency said he knew of no other country that had similarly taken issue with the recommended safety standard.

The Times newspaper report noted that the country’s two largest international lines, Trans World Airlines and Pan American Word Airways, had no individual life-vest lights. Among others who did not were Eastern, National and Northeast Airlines.

Although individual life-vest lights were not required for U.S. Aircraft in 1962, the Times noted that two major US lines with over-water routes had lights on individual crew and passenger vests. They were Northwest Airlines and United Air lines. All Air Force planes by then had lighted life-vests on all over-water runs. The military life-vests also had whistles, dye marker and shark repellent.

An unnamed spokesman for the Federal Aviation Agency at the hearing explained the agency’s disinclination to require life-vest lights this way:

“When the ICAC recommendations were made in 1957, Government officials felt there was no light available that met what were considered minimum requirements.”

[editorial comment: What if President John F. Kenney said, “we cannot go to the moon by the end of the decade,” simply because there was no practical means possible considering our present state of scientific knowledge.]

About Fred Caruso

Survivor of the crash of Flying Tiger 923. at night, at sea, 500 miles off the west coast of Ireland, with 28 deaths and 48 survivors, September 23, 1962.
This entry was posted in flight crew, new combat troopers, passengers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to One light – One raft – 51 people

  1. Blake Henry says:

    I remember being on guard duty in Weisbaden, Germany in 1962 when a young paratrooper (just out of jump school) handed me his orders to enter our post. Little did I know that standing before me was a hero. He never mentioned to me – or anyone else – that he had just help save many lives from an airplane crash in the North Atlantic. The crash of Flying Tiger 923. For some reason I always remembered this young paratrooper (don’t remember his name) standing before me while thinking to myself, “This rookie doesn’t know what he has in store for himself” all e time not knowing what he had just been through. I learned later that he had found a flashlight in a raft and waved it at a plane overhead resulting in most being rescued. Always remember that you never know what that person standing before you has been through – they just may be a hero.

  2. Brad Binford says:

    Thanks to all veterans, but especially Uncle Keith (Dad’s brother) who died in this plane crash.

  3. Roy Melton says:

    Does anyone know the name of the flight attendant that was found deceased alone in a second raft? From information I’ve read in the computer it may have been Jacqueline Brotman. She was from Moline, Il & is buried in the Hebrew cemetery in Rock Island, Il. I was an army soldier in Germany when this happened. I was somewhere in Frankfort, I believe, when someone pointed out a group of soldiers nearby and said they had been in a plane crash in the Atlantic. Days later Mom sent me a local newspaper that mentioned Ms. Brotman dying in the crash.

  4. Karen Eldred-Stephan says:

    I remember that Saturday Evening Post picture. My parents were on the plane, my father survived, my mother was never found. I was in boarding school waiting in line for dinner, may be two weeks later (? not sure I had already been home and was now back at school. My father was still in the hospital in England) and I picked up the new issue of the SAP. Of course it opened up right to the article, where that picture was, as I remember it, the full page on the left. It took a couple of heartbeats to realize what I was looking at and then I collapsed. I’ve never forgotten that picture and where it took my imagination.

  5. dell says:

    I stumbled across this fascinating website, an incredible account indeed.
    I can not help but think that in some respect, ironically, the survival rate was possibly improved by the very fact that so many people were crowded into one raft “like sardines”… and that the combined body warmth may have helped reduce the deadly effects of hypothermia.

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