1971 Blue Mountain plane crash survivor giving back
EASTON, Pa. (AP) — Don Arcury will never forget the severe turbulence as the propeller of the Beechcraft 99 airplane clipped the trees on Blue Mountain in Moore Township, hurtling the commuter craft to the ground in a fiery explosion.
It was after 11 p.m. when Arcury, a passenger, woke up outside the airplane still strapped in his seat, with the chilly October rain pelting his face. With both of his shoulders broken, Arcury couldn’t move. It would be seven hours before members of Moore Township’s Klecknersville Rangers Volunteer Fire Department carried him down the mountainside.
He was lucky: The plane’s two pilots and two other passengers didn’t make it out alive.
It was Oct. 24, 1971.
Now, nearly 50 years later, the 87-year-old Forks Township resident has dedicated himself to giving back to emergency responders like those who hiked up the slick mountainside that night and saved his life.
“Every day after that, you have to be thankful,” said Arcury, as he sat at his kitchen table on a recent Friday, showing newspaper clippings from the fateful night along with pictures from his recovery at Easton Hospital. Doctors there inserted a metal plate into his right arm and secured both shoulders with slings.
“I’m blessed, so I want to give back whatever I can as long as I can,” said Arcury, who every year hosts a luncheon for about 100 emergency workers from around the Lehigh Valley.
This year’s event was on a recent Thursday at the Forks Township Community Center.
After the crash, it wasn’t an easy road back to a normal life for Arcury, a successful businessman and a manager for many years at Sammons Communications, a former cable television franchise in Easton.
His son Donald Jr. died in a car crash in 1977 at age 19. Arcury’s house was struck by lightning and burned down in 2001. And in 2005, his second wife Sharon Arcury died of cancer.
“I always try to find something and make good of it, and then you realize the negatives in your life aren’t so bad,” Arcury said.
The first couple years after the plane crash were some of the hardest in his life.
Arcury lost his good friend, Richard Banko of Wilson, in the plane crash. The depression that followed drove him away from his friends and family, and eventually led to his separation from his first wife, Lorraine.
“I always try to find something and make good of it, and then you realize the negatives in your life aren’t so bad.”
Arcury, who was 38 years old at the time, was returning from a hunting trip with six of his buddies in Newfoundland, Canada.
Four of his friends decided to drive home while Arcury and Banko, who also worked at Sammons, took a flight from Canada to JFK Airport.
From there, they boarded a 20-seat Monmouth Airlines commuter plane bound for Scranton/Wilkes Barre.
The return trip went wrong from the start, Arcury said.
The plane to JFK broke down as it headed down the runway in Canada, and a replacement wasn’t available until the next morning.
In New York, the flight to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was delayed while the airport brought in a different plane.
After stopping to drop off passengers in Scranton, the Beechcraft B99 was on its way to ABE Airport, now known as Lehigh Valley International.
Once in the air, Arcury remembers getting up from his seat and walking to the back of the plane to stretch. Banko moved into Arcury’s seat, and Arcury decided to sit in the back.
It was 11:15 p.m. when Arcury was violently shaken by the turbulence. Still strapped in his seat, Arcury hurtled through the air as he looked down at where Banko was sitting.
“Up on the mountain, I couldn’t put it all together. I knew it was bad. I was hollering and hollering,” Arcury said.
He heard the screams, which he later realized were coming from the pilots Richard Ricotta, 39, and James Crawford, 25, both of Staten Island, as flames engulfed the plane.
The two men died, along with passengers Banko and Paul Ludwig of Switzerland, according to an Oct. 27, 1971, article in The Morning Call. The other survivors were Anton Reis, of Switzerland, and Serge Destrempes and his wife Ginette Destrempes, both of Canada, who were married just a week before.
A report from the National Transportation Safety Board cited pilot fatigue and said the pilots did not follow proper approach procedures as they flew into the Lehigh Valley. The plane was flying at 1,540 feet when it clipped the ridge of Blue Mountain, said a report on the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives.
Emergency responders were summoned to the scene after someone saw flames on the mountain.
Tom Dieter, then 29, was a member of the Klecknersville Rangers.
“It was pitch dark, and there was no trail,” he said.
Back then, there were no helicopters to respond and the rescuers knew they had to bring down the injured, so they couldn’t carry much else. Dieter said they used hand-held flashlights and followed paths worn into the brush by roaming deer.
The crash was about five miles from where Blue Mountain Ski Resort is today, though it didn’t exist back then, Dieter said. That part of the township is called Delps, about half way between Lehigh Gap and Wind Gap.
It took more than an hour to get from the bottom of the mountain to the top.
“It was very difficult because it started to get misty, and rain and the rocks got slippery and you had to make sure you didn’t fall,” said Dieter, who is now 77 and still lives in Moore Township.
Dieter and a team of three other men carried one passenger off the mountain on a gurney, talking to him the entire way before he died when they reached the bottom.
“We tried to keep him engaged in conversation so he wouldn’t go into shock on us,” Dieter said. “You never forget the fact you talked to the man all the way down. You keep thinking, ’Is there anything I could have done other than get down as fast as we could?”
The accident still haunts him today.
“There are times when you are sitting there thinking about nothing at all and then, boom! All of a sudden you’re thinking about it,” Dieter said.
Hank Van Blargan, 73, of Moore Township also responded to the scene.
When rescuers arrived, they didn’t immediately realize a plane had crashed, Van Blargan said.
“I don’t remember how many people were dead on top of the mountain, but I know we spent the night up there with them because we didn’t want to risk carrying more people down,” Van Blargan said.
Arcury wasn’t carried off the mountain until 6 a.m., seven hours after the crash.
He did eventually meet with the Klecknersville Rangers in 2007 to offer his thanks. For several years after that, he held luncheons at his home for first responders from multiple departments in the area.
Last year, with the help of his wife Marian Arcury, and children David Arcury, Gary Arcury, Kyle Arcury and Stacey Blochuk, he hosted a larger event for 90 first responders at the Forks Township Community Center.
On Thursday, the group was back again to host this year’s event. Attendees included members of Suburban EMS, Forks Township Police, state police and Forks Township employees.
“It makes us feel appreciated,” said Forks Township Police Detective Cpl. Joe Effting.
Effting, who met Arcury when he started working for the police department 13 years ago, said he was amazed when he learned Arcury’s history.
“It gives you appreciation for life in general, and for him to survive and show his appreciation says something about his good nature,” Effting said.
Bob Wesley, a contractor who works with Northampton County Emergency Management Services, was one of about a dozen volunteers who donated to the annual luncheon.
“I think it’s wonderful. Today, people don’t really take the time to say thank you to emergency responders. I know they appreciate it,” Wesley said.
John Todaro of Bethlehem Township, Arcury’s brother-in-law, teared up as he talked Thursday.
He said the luncheon is a way to remind people of the risks emergency workers take.
“People forget what they did,” Todaro said of the 1971 crash. “This is a thank you for what they do every day. They are risking their lives every day,” he said.
“I’m blessed, so I want to give back whatever I can as long as I can.”
For a long time after the crash, Arcury asked himself, “Why did I live and my friend get killed because he moved into my seat?”
Arcury thinks it’s because he was meant to give back and to remind people not to forget the emergency responders who keep us safe and give some of us second chances.
“Maybe it was for a reason, and this is the reason,” he said.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com