“It has been almost 52 years since the plane ditched in the North Atlantic
and you (the FT923 site editor) are the first one I have talked to
about that night since I left Germany and the men
that shared the same experience we did.”
That is what Charles Keck of Gibsonville, North Carolina had to say in an email follow up to a recent interview for this site in which he said he “talks very little about it.” Keck calls Sunday, September 23, 1962, the ”worse night” of his life.
Keck was knocked out on impact as Flying Tiger 923 attempted to make a soft water ditching after the loss of three of its four engines. The impact tore off the right wing and broke open the bottom cargo cabins.
The cold water rushing in to the broken aircraft awakened Keck to find that seats had broken loose and were piled on top of him. His seatbelt was still fastened as he lay under that pile.
Breaking out of his seatbelt, he pushed his way from under the pile of seats. Water was waist deep by then leaving almost no time for thinking. Almost instantly, he bolted out the left wing window.
Once out, he fought the ice-cold furious waves as they pushed him against the fuselage of the sinking Super Constellation. By that time only three to four feet of the plane were rising above the waves. Fearing being sucked under water by the sinking wreckage, he pushed himself away and started swimming into the darkness. He heard frantic voices shouting about the life raft. He swam in that direction and luckily he came upon it. By that time he was unable to climb on board, but someone already inside pulled him in.
The single 25 person life raft was ultimately crammed with 51 survivors, many overcome with shock and all fighting hypothermia. As he wedged his way into the mass, he realized he had a seriously cut leg and an injury to his head.
Keck remembers a bit of the first two hours in the raft, the twisting and bobbing and ice cold splashes of waves breaking over the tiny craft. But, he says he doesn’t remember any of the last four hours, including the approach of the rescue ship and evacuation off the raft. He says all he can remember is that an Italian seaman pulled him onto the safety of the deck.
His injuries were treated while on the Celerina by fellow survivor Dr. Juan Figueroa and he was able to go on to the port of Antwerp. After spending some recovery time at a hospital in Frankfurt he went on to his assignment as an army engineer with the 12th Engineering Battalion in Dexheim, near Openheim, Germany. His company was all airborne qualified.
The Flying Tiger ditching terrified him, but didn’t discourage him from flying or jumping out of airplanes. In all, he logged in 84 jumps in the six years after the crash. He reinlisted in 1965 for another three years of airborne service and was rotated back to the states in 1966. He managed to avoid Viet Nam, but saw 13 months of duty in the Dominican Republic.
After leaving the service 1967, he worked for the Power Company and married Carolyn. They have been married for 46 years in February. His father-in-law was in the wood cutting business. They decided to join forces and go into business together in Gibsonville and are still operating after 44 years, now with his son, Erick on board.
In response to the question, “What was your worse memory of the disastrous night?”, he responds, “It was all bad.” He says he was scared to death until he said the Lord’s Prayer, and then he wasn’t scared.
Keck recommends as a result of the crash, “Trust in God that everything will be all right.” And, “Stay close to the family.”
Charles (who goes by his nickname of Pete) and wife Carolyn have one son also named Charles. He goes by the name Erick. Erick and wife Anna have one son named Logan Thomas. They all live in the Gibsonville community.
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Note: Keck was a hard person to find. In fact, it was he who found us on the internet some time ago. He was watching us silently for some time. He finally made contact with us to ask for a digital photo of fellow survivors Frank Ruffalo, of Chicago, and Sammy Vasquez, of Phoenix. The photo appeared in the reader comments story posted on June 1, 2014.