Continental Airlines Flight 11 was flying into a storm, but Capt. Fred R. Gray was calm. The ride had been free of turbulence for five minutes, and, after a slight course correction, the pilot had begun the aircraft's descent into Kansas City. The night sky ahead was clear.
The 23-year veteran and his crew of seven had left Chicago's O'Hare International Airport at 8:35 p.m. May 22, 1962. It was the carrier's last flight of the evening, scheduled to touch down in Kansas City at 9:36 p.m. before heading on to Los Angeles.
With 37 passengers aboard, the Boeing 707 — able to seat 120 — was two-thirds empty. Passengers like Dale Horn probably had home on their minds. Horn was speeding back to Independence to tell his wife, Joanne, that he'd been hired to manage the Emery freight office in Chicago. Others among the commuting businessmen bantered with the four Continental hostesses, dressed in red berets and sharp, A-line skirts.
The only other woman aboard was Geneva Fraley of Independence, who was traveling with her business partner, Thomas Doty of Merriam. Forty-six minutes into the 61-minute flight, Doty got up to use the 707's rear lavatory.
A minute later, Flight 11 disappeared off the radar.
People heard a boom and a swish," says Duane Crawford. The newspaper columnist and retired schoolteacher extends his left arm, palm flat to the ground, and traces the plane's flight path east to west across the horizon. Flight 11 came apart at 36,800 feet — 38 feet of the tail section broke away from the main fuselage. Crawford, 77, falls silent, struck by what he felt when he first visited the crash site, more than a decade ago. He rests his arms again on a locked gate, with chipped orange paint, outside this alfalfa field in Unionville, Missouri. "They thought it was thunder. Then they smelled the fuel."
Deer and turkey hunters lease this land now, unaware that this is where Continental Flight 11 fell to Earth 50 years ago. The shattered jet came to rest in a copse of trees a half-mile from the road where Crawford has driven today. He can still point to ruts in the field left in 1962 by Putnam County coroner Dr. Charles Judd's four-wheel-drive truck.
"A chill went up my spine, knowing what those people went through. I knew that I had to tell their story, those that died. Their death cast a shadow and caused all these ripples."
Crawford has become Unionville's caretaker for the legacy of Flight 11. But the story was unknown to him when he moved to the rural town in 1979, after a 26-year stint in the Marines. The 707 he knew in 1962 was the one that flew him to Vietnam.
A few times a year, Crawford makes the drive to the crash site in his black Chevy truck, on his way to what he calls "moose country." Trim and gray-haired, he lives in a low-slung brick house slightly north of Unionville, a little less from five miles from where the fuselage came to a stop. Behind wire-rim glasses, his blue eyes water slightly, maybe from the sun's glare, as he points out where two bodies were found, near the farm of Ilajean and Cleo Weber.
According to the 2010 Census, 3,805 people call Unionville home. Most residents either farm or drive a truck for a living. The "moose," in this case, are spring calves and the occasional turkey that wanders too close to the road. Crawford makes a left onto the pitted pavement of Highway UU — once a dirt road, this is where onlookers and journalists found their cars stranded in ruts and ditches in 1962.