Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Dedication of Grand Canyon's Eighth National Historic Landmark - The 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site

On July 8, 2014, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga formally dedicated the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site. Wikipedia has a great synopsis of the crash here. At an event that was covered by the NBC affiliate in Phoenix and the Associated Press, about 200 people attended the ceremony. Below is an image of the printed program that was distributed at the event. You will notice that the names of all 128 persons who perished in this tragic collision are listed on the left hand side.

When I first began working at the Grand Canyon in the mid-1970's, one of the first impressions I got was when I was perusing the Park's collection of slide photographs. The first set of slides I encountered were the ones associated with the recovery of the wreckage and the bodies a few days later. I instantly felt a connection to this event. Now I am even more connected to it.

The Park Service requested that someone from the Grand Canyon Historical Society give remarks at this event. I serve as the President of the Society and was glad to give remarks, which are included at the end of this posting.

Here are some of the pictures I took at this historic occasion.

Milton Tso provided the opening music on a gorgeous summer day at Desert View

Ron Lee is the District Director for Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick

Clint Chandler represented the office of Senator Jeff Flake

Glen Miller is the Acting Western Regional Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration

Mike Nelson, who has just written a book called "We Are Going In." His uncle was one of the victims on the United plane and he told an outstanding story from the book.

Superintendent Dave Uberuaga in front of the plaque that will be mounted on a rock at Desert View. A miniature of this exact plaque will be given to the family members.

Researcher Ben Carver of Northern Arizona University (left) who has studied the crash and NPS ranger Ian Hough who spearheaded to the nomination process which took about 8 years to complete and finalize.

Standing with Superintendent Uberuaga

Behind the plaque is the general location of the crash site

Louis Hudgin (left) was a small boy when the crash happened and his family owned Grand Canyon Airlines at the time. It was his father and uncle who flew over the canyon late in the evening of June 30, 1956 and located the crash site.

Ray Cook (left) also lost his father in the crash and was 10 years old at the time. He sits here with Mike Nelson.

Comments given by Wayne Ranney, 
President of the Grand Canyon Historical Society at the Dedication 
July 8, 2014

Good morning everyone and welcome to Grand Canyon National Park. My name is Wayne Ranney and I am the President of the Grand Canyon Historical Society – established in 1984 by a group of dedicated Grand Canyon residents who wished to preserve the rich and colorful human history of the Grand Canyon. In the 30-year existence of our Society we have endeavored to keep the memory of the many human successes and failures, that have occurred at this iconic landscape, in focus for future generations. Ours is not a Society that merely preserves old photographs or dusty texts, but one that puts history in clear view so that people today can learn from the past. I guess that is why the National Park Service so graciously and thoughtfully asked our organization to be a part of this dedication. I am honored to represent the Society here today and we are honored that the National Park Service has chosen to include us at this important dedication. We have never forgotten the scope and scale of this horrific accident in the skies over Grand Canyon. 

A little over one week ago on June 30, we commemorated the 58th anniversary of the mid-air collision of two airliners over Grand Canyon – TWA Flight 2 and United Airlines Flight 718. Memorial wreaths were laid at both mass gravesites in Flagstaff and Grand Canyon. About fifty family members came, some for the first time since the accident. Sons and daughters of the victims, grandchildren and great-grand children were here to remember. In most respects it was a happy event but in every sense it was a moving and heart-rending occasion. I was amazed that after 58 years that anyone involved with the crash would bother to come at all. But such is the depth to which this tragedy cut into the lives of thousands of people.

One of the themes that we continually heard last week was how the crash severely and negatively impacted the lives of so many family members, such as spouses and children, who were left behind in the wake of a disaster, which rippled outward much farther than the 128 people who lost their lives that fateful day. In the innocent and na├»ve decade of the 1950’s the people living with the loss of loved ones were expected to be strong, stand tall, and perhaps pretend that it never really happened and would just go away. Perhaps that was an equal part of the tragedy – that many of these people had few places to turn to, to express their grief or feel the depth of their loss.

In the years following the crash the National Park Service reacted to the event in much the same way. I saw this first hand when I became a ranger at Grand Canyon only 20 years after the accident. Like a lot of family members who were profoundly wounded, the National Park Service employees and residents of Grand Canyon Village couldn’t believe it happened here and wished it would just go away. Two after-crash clean up projects were undertaken to repair the landscape below us but little was done to repair the broken hearts or shattered lives left across a country of 169 million people in 1956.

And then remarkably, eight and a half years ago in late 2005, a chance luncheon in Flagstaff between my wife, Helen Ranney of the Grand Canyon Association and historian Richard Quartaroli of Northern Arizona University, started a conversation that everyone felt was appropriate and timely – to hold a commemoration event in Grand Canyon Village on the 50th anniversary of the mid-air collision, June 30th, 2006. I think the National Park Service was as surprised as the rest of us to see every seat in the Shrine of the Ages Auditorium taken by people from everywhere who just wanted to honor the people who were lost, recall and remember the tragedy, and touch a piece of history. At that commemoration, we were all touched when two family members showed up, Ray Cook who lost his father on the United Airlines flight and ­­­Sally Gauthier who lost her father on TWA (please stand).

That event hosted by the Grand Canyon Association eight years ago changed everything related to this accident at Grand Canyon National Park. It began a process whereby the accident could be viewed in the context of the present without the shadows or the pain of the past. The National Park Service completely reversed course on its long silence and began to understand the accident not merely as a scar upon the landscape but also as a scar upon the hearts of loved ones who needed remembrance, acknowledgment, and closure. Bravo to the National Park Service today for acknowledging that this event is an important piece of Grand Canyon and United States history! I want to thank everyone with the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon Historical Society, the Grand Canyon Association, both airlines, and the Federal Aviation Administration who made this designation possible. But especially let us thank Rangers Ian Hough and Jan Balsom who spearheaded the drive to make this happen. Without their personal understanding of the crash and their professional commitment to see something done, we would not be here today. 

Three minutes – that was the elapsed time between take off for both of the planes. How many times people must have thought if they had only been delayed just a few more seconds somewhere on their path toward the Painted Desert VOR line that stretched 200 miles between Bryce Canyon to the north and Winslow to the south. Just a few more seconds would have prevented this crash. But the truth is, if this accident didn't happen here at 10:31 AM on June 30, 1956, it would have happened somewhere else not long afterward. With the benefit of 58 years of reflection we can now see that as a people we were giddy with our technological ability to fly cross-country and that our enthusiasm for flight far outpaced the need to better regulate the sky for air traffic. In some unthinkable way, this accident needed to happen so that the skies above us could become better organized for the safety, speed, and modern lifestyle we take for granted today. Regulations, especially federal ones, often get a bad rap these days but let this tragedy be a reminder to us all what the results can be when there is too little of it.

On behalf of the nearly 300 members of the Grand Canyon Historical Society, we welcome you to Grand Canyon National Park today and we honor the family members here who have lived without a sense of closure for these 58 years. We hope that all of you will take this opportunity to meet these family members who are here with us (show of hands please), talk with National Park Service representatives (in uniform) and with Grand Canyon Historical Society members (show of hands please) about the National Historic Landmark designation of the accident site. We remember those lost and we thank everyone for being here today."


  1. Wish I could have been there for the dedication, Wayne. I'm so happy that this took place. Do you know if Bud Dunagan was present? He was the Deputy Sheriff who responded to the site back in '56 and still has some amazing stories about it. He lives in Williams.

  2. Your incredibly fine speech brought a mist to my eyes, Wayne. We are So Proud of you. Thank You for all that you do so well.


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