Carol Gould Hansen was the most visible of all survivors of Flying Tiger 923. She was pretty, full of energy, a natural leader, and always quick to flash a smile. She played a very important role in the well being of all fellow survivors. She was on her day off, but she was unexpectedly called to duty on the morning of Sunday, September 23, 1962. This is her story.
A Forgiven Disaster:
Carol Hansen and the Ditching of Flying Tiger 923
Adapted from a presentation by John and Dawn Crotty
Carol was staying over night with a friend, Patty Johnson. They were jolted awake at 4:30 a.m. by an unexpected call from the back office of Flying Tiger Lines. “Carol, we just called your Mom, and she gave us this number to reach you. We need you to fill in for a stewardess who is sick. It will pay double time.”
The prospect excited Carol as she was saving up for a new car. And she loved to fly! She left Patty’s house in a rush to her house, tiptoed into her room, grabbled some clothes, kissed her mom and, with a wave, disappeared into the night.
At Newark Airport, head stewardess Betty Sims was beaming as she saw Carol running toward her.
“We know you’ve been out all night,” she said, “and you’re tired. You can sleep. We just need your body on board to meet regulations. We are heading over to McGuire Air Base to pick up soldiers and take them to Germany.”
Betty could not have known it then, but in a few hours they would need a lot more than just Carol’s body on board. The crew and passengers would need all of Carol’s resilient spirit and all of the courage she could muster.
They took off from McGuire at 8:00 a.m. and proceeded to Gander, Newfoundland for refueling. Upon arrival, passengers disembarked for a stretch and some lunch. While on the cafeteria line, co-stewardess Jacqueline Brotman was wrestling with a premonition. She turned to Carol and said, “I have a bad feeling about this flight. It feels dangerous.”
Carol put an arm around her shoulder and replied, “Oh, everything will be just fine Jackie.”
They boarded the plane at Gander for a 6:00 p.m. take off to Franfurt. Carol was at last able to sleep. Her sleep came to an abrupt end as she awoke to Jackie shaking her: “An engine is on fire!”
Groggy Carol replied, “Oh Jackie, for heaven sake, they are probably just dumping fuel.”
Carol fell back into sleep, but was jolted awake as she heard the engineer exclaim, “Oh my God”
An Engine on Fire!
Looking out the window, she saw flames and sparks trailing engine number three, which was nearest to her seat. Four miles below, she could make out the whitecaps on the waves. She could also dimly see her own terrified reflection in the small window. She steadied herself and resolved not to panic, not in front of her passengers.
They were at 21,000 feet when the fire alarm sounded on the number three engine. Engineer James Garrett discharged a bottle of fire extinguisher into the engine and the fire went out. Captain Murray descended to 10,000 feet and altered course for Shannon Airport in Ireland.
Garrett then made a tragic error. He closed the number one engine firewall shut off valve instead of number three. It caused an immediate over speed of that engine and it too had to be shut down.
Betty, as head stewardess, was summoned to the cockpit for a briefing by the Captain. She was 31 years old with 10 years of flying experience, and had been secretly married just two weeks before. Returning to the cabin from her briefing by the Captain, Betty showed no panic on her face. She calmly announced that the aircraft was built to fly on two engines.
Co-stewardess Ruth Mudd joined Jackie and Carol in assisting passengers with their life vests and slowly prepared them for a possible ditching. Ruth Mudd had just learned the week before that she was to be laid off. She decided to fly this flight, but vowed it would be her last. The Flying Tiger Line didn’t need her anymore. She never let that show.
As the clock ticked on, Carol and her colleagues continued to instruct the passengers in ditching procedures, just in case it were necessary to do so. The situation was framed in “if it became necessary to ditch.”
The crew took emergency positions at the exits with Carol assigned to the left front. The navigator would take his seat by the large cabin door at the left rear of the plane. It was quiet. Europe and safety was only 500 miles away
At about 10:00 p.m., large chunks of carbonized flames trailed the number two engine. Alarm bells sounded for the third and last time. Everyone could feel the shudder as the engine stopped with a thud. Captain Murray’s voice came over the loud speaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain. We are going to ditch.”
The remaining engine was number four on the right wing. Captain Murray slowly turned the aircraft into the raging wind. When he found a relatively level spot between the huge swells, he cut the last engine for his final decent.
This is not a drill!
In the meantime, Carol and her co-stewardesses made a final seat belt check and reminded all passengers one more time the mechanics of the ditching position. “Head on your knees, cross your arms over your head and brace against the seat in front of you! This is not a drill!”
The plane was now only hundreds of feet above the waves. Troopers yelled out for Carol to sit before it was too late.
The impact was the type of horror that comes back to survivors in a holograph of crunching metal, cold seawater, cries and darkness. People were thrown forward as some seats broke loose on impact. Water poured in from the bottom of the plane. It was pitch black and little more than shadows could be seen.
Captain Murray sustained a severe blow to his head. Blood covered his face as he joined Co-pilot Robert Parker and Engineer Garrett at ditching stations in the cabin. Nicholson had already pushed the un-inflated raft out the rear door. Jumping after it, he managed to inflate it, although upside down with its emergency lights and emergency kit facing down.
Seconds after impact, Carol removed the emergency window and shouted for the passengers to follow her. She was anxious to drop down onto the wing and open the raft compartment door. As she looked down, she saw there was no wing; it had sheared off on impact. Carol and her passengers could only fall into the frigid ocean below.
Almost immediately, as she attempted to swim away from the aircraft, she was pulled beneath the surface — the chaos and raging sea — by a panicked passenger grabbing her for safety. The numbing cold and confusion underwater momentarily put her in a coma-like state. The only clue that she was still alive was the sound of her own heartbeat. She fought the urge to give up, broke away from the grip of the panicked passenger and swam upward. As she broke through the debris-ridden surface, Carol gulped for air and cried out “I will not die this way.”
One huge wave swept her away from the plane while its undertow pulled Garrett directly into it and the jagged edge of the broken wing, killing him before he could swim any further.
There was a light off to her left. She had assumed it was one of the raft’s lights, yet there were no lights anywhere that dark night (Today she confides with quiet certitude, that it was “God’s light showing us the way to the raft.”) The light drew her on as a group of soldiers followed her.
As they approached the raft, they heard frantic cries from someone within, “There’s no more room. Don’t take on any more. The raft’s too crowded!” A determined young trooper already in the crowded raft ignored those pleas and hauled Carol and ten others into the raft. [please see footnote below.]
The raft was 15 feet wide and designed to hold only 25 people. There would eventually be 51 pulled in. There was already a foot of water covering the bottom and three people were already near death. It was upside down with no lights and no emergency supplies.
As more people were dragged into the raft, they found themselves piled in a jumble of entangled limbs, chaffing against each other even when each found a tiny niche of space. The only light was from ocean plankton which made the water glow. That glow brought Carol back in time and she suddenly remembered a childhood song. She whispered it to herself: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…”
Carol begins to sing
She began to sing her song aloud. Terrified eyes turned to her. For some who could hear above the roar of the wind and ocean and the moaning of the injured, the song became a warm, soothing prayer.
Her singing came to an abrupt time-out as she gasped for air and to steadied herself in the raft as it was being heaved upward by a 20 foot wave. It was like a roller coaster at Coney Island, twisting up and down and back up again. And the waves were pulling down harder pushing the raft nearly under water and then back up. As the raft re-surfaced. she screamed against the howling wind her song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
She continued with more songs and prayers and even jokes. Suddenly Navigator Nicholson ordered everyone to stop and listen. A plane was passing overhead.
Because of the noise of the ranging winds, very few could hear and some never did know the details. It was a military transport plane going from Scotland to Newfoundland, an Air Force C-118. Its pilot had responded to the distress signals and arrived in the general location at the time of ditching. It had been circling overhead at 1300 feet, searching for rafts. When it was fairly certain they spotted the raft’ the C-118 swooped down and dropped a bright red flare.
Flares expose the horror
Carol remembered the eerie glow of the flare. “When it first dropped it was like daytime on the raft. It was good, but it wasn’t. I could see everyone around me and they were all bloody. The water in the raft was turning sickening red. Private Brown was bleeding so badly from a big gash on his head that I knew something had to be done. I remembered my slip. I took it off and made a compress out of it and put it on his head. Then a wave washed it off. The only way to keep it there was to hold it. He blacked out a few times. We both prayed.”
Nearly all were suffering varying degrees of shock and exposure. Everyone’s endurance was wearing thin. So Carol started to sing again. She began with “Glory, glory hallelujah.” Most were too weak to join in.
“After we were in the water for about three hours,” Carol said, “I could make out a steady glow on the horizon. It was a light underneath one of the stars in the lip of the Big Dipper. When it stayed in the same place, never flickering, I knew it wasn’t a mirage. It was a rescue ship.”
At long last, the ship’s search light found the raft and bathed the survivors in its harsh glare. It was a Swiss freighter, The Celerina. Panic struck the raft for a few short minutes when one of the survivors mistook the ship for a Russian ship. “They are not going to pick us up because we are Americans,” she shouted. “They are going to leave us here to die.”
Fortunately, that rumor faded quickly. Once close enough to the raft, sailors threw rope ladders over the side. By then the waves had reached 20 feet. At times the survivors were level with the deck of the vessel, only to fall below the waterline the next moment. One by one, the exhausted survivors pulled their way up the ladders into the arms of the ship’s crewmen.
Once on deck, a sailor gave Carol a shot of whiskey and it warmed her. She searched the deck for Doctor Figueroa-Longo and became his assistant treating the wounded. She seemed to be everywhere, giving comfort and medicine, pausing only long enough to look out to sea, hoping to glimpse another raft. She longed to find her co-stewardesses. Betty Sims had been sitting just behind her on the plane. Her last words were to reassure Carol on how to retrieve the raft once she got on the wing. “You will do fine, Carol, just fine.”
Several hours later, the sailors of the Celerina informed her that three rafts were found by other ships that had reached the area. They were all empty. Seven bodies were recovered near the ditch site: Stewardess Brotman, Engineer Garrett, Co-pilot Parker and four servicemen. Another eighteen were never found. Among them were Stewardess Ruth Mudd and Head Stewardess Betty Sims.
[John and Dawn Crotty interviewed Carol for an inspirational story about how a person can rise above adversity and maintain a steady smile through the power of “Forgiveness”.]
[Footnote on “the raft’s too crowded”: the trooper who said this was one of the first to get in. He had been told, as everyone was, that there were four more rafts available, two in each wing. It was true, the raft was too crowded. Unfortunately the chaos of panicked survivors screaming, the roar of the ocean, and the freezing water made it impossible for anyone to know, at that time, there was only one life raft for everyone.]