News » Feature

Fifty years ago this week, Continental Flight 11 fell out of the sky over Unionville

Retracing the path of Continental Flight 11, 50 years after it crashed in Unionville.



Page 2 of 6

The farming community has recently seen an influx of Amish and Mennonites from Pennsylvania, so horse-drawn buggies share the road with pickups. Next to farmland mailboxes are wooden signs quoting Scripture. Crawford's truck bounces past one that asks: "Is Thy Heart Right With God?"

The alfalfa field is less than a mile from the Iowa border. Debris from the plane dropped on both sides of the state line, with one 8-foot section of the tail ending up in Cincinnati, Iowa, 15 miles northeast of the main crash site. The wind carried napkins and insulation and other light detritus as far as 120 miles away. Authorities knew that a commercial jet had disappeared from radar, but they didn't know why and couldn't immediately pinpoint where contact was lost.

On the ground, drivers began to report seeing debris in roadways, and local law enforcement started hearing from aviation authorities and the media.

The impact rattled the windows of Terry Bunnell's house, but he thought — as many others, who had heard Flight 11 go down, would say later — the storm had simply lingered. By dawn, though, he wondered if the sound was something else. As the sun rose, the Unionville resident walked south and arrived at the crash site around the same time as Lester Cook and his son, Ron. Cook would later find one of the jet engines cratered in his yard, but the wings remained attached to the fuselage, wires dangling from the damaged plane.

The cockpit was intact, though the nose had crashed into the earth at a 20-degree angle. The three men in the cockpit were still strapped in, smoke masks attached to their faces. Reports indicated that the crew's emergency checklist was found between the captain and his instrument panel. The plane's landing gear was down.

Bunnell and Cook heard moaning coming from a nearby tangle of clothing and luggage. Takehiko Nakano was alive, lying on his back across a row of three seats. The 27-year-old Japanese engineer, the crash's only survivor, lived another 90 minutes after he was found; he died at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital (now known as Mercy Medical Center) in Centerville, Iowa, later that morning.

Early speculation was that the plane had been torn apart by the severe weather or had flown too high trying to escape it. But the morning after the plane crashed, W. Mark Felt, then the bureau chief for the FBI's Kansas City office, was already hearing another explanation. Explosive residue had been found on one of the bodies.

Thomas Doty arrived at O'Hare International Airport that Tuesday night with Geneva Fraley, a former co-worker at Luzier Cosmetics, with whom he was planning to open a home-furnishings business in June. The two had both stayed the previous evening at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. Inside Terminal 2, Doty and Fraley purchased life insurance from one of the two circular counters across from the check-in area. A last-minute insurance purchase was nothing unusual for travelers, but the amounts that Doty and Fraley purchased were. Doty paid for a policy worth $250,000, one that covered accidental death in flight. Fraley picked up $75,000 worth of the same coverage.

Doty, like Fraley, was married. He named his wife as the beneficiary of his new policy; she was pregnant with the couple's second child.

Doty was 34, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia who had moved to Kansas City expecting greatness. But his ceramic-coffin business had gone into bankruptcy in 1961, and by March 1962, he'd left his next job as a salesman with Luzier. A month later, he was charged with attacking a woman at a Kansas City, Kansas, intersection; police said he struck her and took her pocketbook. When police found Doty with a gun and the woman's purse, Doty claimed that he'd discovered the pocketbook while walking around to get fresh air. He was due in court to face first-degree robbery and concealed-weapon charges on May 25.

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

Add a comment