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Forgotten Crash Observed 60 Years Later

By Matt Dougherty
Published On: Dec 12 2013 12:16:25 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 16 2014 07:59:14 PM CST

A forgotten El Paso tragedy will finally get a fitting memorial

EL PASO, Texas -

Scattered pieces of the wreckage still litter the landscape of the Franklin Mountains.

The enormous turbines and propellers now wear 60 years of rust and compete with the desert cacti for space.

Few hikers make the treacherous climb to the site where the bomber went down in 1953, but even fewer people are still alive to remember what happened.

Luz West, a local hiker, makes an annual pilgrimage to the crash site every year on the anniversary of the tragedy.  She has no connection to the nine airmen who died in the crash that day.
They were on their way back to Biggs Air Force Base, in the middle of a terrible blizzard, on December 11, 1953.

“I have no idea who these people were, but they were human beings. Personas humanas,” West said. “Somebody’s go to do something for them or I don’t know, so it came to me, from the bottom of my hear. I wanted to do something here where they lost their lives.”

West has been making the trek to the spot since she discovered it by accident eight years ago, during one of her hikes.  She said when she found the site she did some research, and couldn’t believe nothing had ever been done to memorialized the tragedy.

“I’ll do it every year until I cannot walk anymore,” West said. “But as long as I walk, I will be here, every year.”

West has created her own pilgrimage to the site which she makes every year.  It is very specific.  The day begins across the border at a florist in Juarez.  She buys an enormous spray of flowers, held together by wood.  Each bird-of-paradise in the arrangement represents one of the men who died that day.  The reason she says she buys it in Juarez is because they don’t carry the flowers she likes in El Paso.

On foot, West marches the arrangement across the border, through downtown El Paso, and up the side of the mountain.  The trek isn’t easy, but she insists on doing it the same way every year.  When she gets to the spot she lays the flowers atop some of the metallic wreckage.  Then she kneels and prays.

West says she tries to get other people to join her on the trek, but most years it’s just her.  She says she’s fine with that, but just in case, she brings along a thermos full of hot coffee and burritos for whomever she may find.  On this day, my photographer and I were the ones sharing refreshments when we found her at the site.

Many of the airmen’s family members have also died as time has passed.  All of the family’s left El Paso after the crash.  Without anyone around to keep the memory of the crash alive in El Paso – the tale of what happened also got quite with time.

I first learned of the story this year.  My grandfather, Jack Dougherty’s younger brother, John Dougherty, was a staff sergeant at Biggs airfield in 1953.  He and another airmen were assigned to lead the rescue effort of first responders right after the B-36 bomber went down.

“We were all just young kids,” Dougherty said. “I think I was like about 22, and had never really seen anything like that.”

Newspaper reports tell a gruesome tale of what Air Force rescue crews found that day.  None of the airmen survived. Some of the rescuers suffered frostbite during the recovery.  John says they had to make campfires for light and to keep warm.

“There was scattered debris all over the place and our job was to rescue anybody that hadn’t died,” Dougherty said. “What we did find were body parts, all over. Some of them were quite a ways from the crash site, so the impact was tremendous. The worst thing about it – it was just before Christmas.  It was going to be extra hard for the families because of the fact that Christmas was just a few weeks away.”

This weekend, for the first time in six decades, a ceremony will be held to honor the men who died.

The still-living family members of the airmen will travel to El Paso from throughout the country for the event.  A monument will be dedicated by the El Paso County Historical Commission at the base of the trailhead leading to the crash site.

For Luz West it’s a day she’s been dreaming of since she began her pilgrimage.  After all of those years she’s spent praying for the men who died, men who she never knew, she will finally be able to say a few words to their families.

“When you told me it really touched my heart,” West said. I said ‘wow, if hopefully I can meet the family.’ Emocional. Emocional.”

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