A solemn remembrance takes place today for families affected by one of the worst airline disasters in our area. Pan Am Flight 214 was Pan Am Flight 214 was returning to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico on December 8, 1963 when it was hit by lightning and exploded over the Delaware-Maryland state line.
No one survived the crash.
In all, 81 people perished. Hours later, a firefighter collapsed and died during rescue efforts.
Many of the families affected were from our area. About 120 people connected by the tragedy will return to the site of the crash in Elkton, Maryland. Their stories will be collected as part of the remembrance program.
On the night of the crash, the Boeing jet had just refueled in Baltimore and took off into turbulent weather during a thunderstorm. Eyewitnesses said they saw two flashes of lightning in the sky and then saw the big jet "light up like a torch in the sky, break into pieces and swerve to the ground," according to an archived report from the WDEL Wilmington News Room.
"There were patches of fire throughout the field," remembers Henry Shaffer. He was a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter doing his homework that day when a call came. Shaffer was among the first responders. "You could see the plane's fuselage. It had cut a path probably 35 to 40 feet wide.
"I was emotionless," Shaffer said. "You didn't know what or how to feel."
Reuben Miller was 35 he lost his sister in that plane crash. She and her husband had been in Puerto Rico with their friends from bridge club. That club orphaned a total of nine children that night. Miller said he will never forget getting that call.
"Well, it's as though it happened yesterday. Of course it came over the news that the plane had crashed, and they gave the number and my father called me. I was hoping it was a mistake, but it wasn't," Miller said.
The field where Flight 214 went down in Elkton is now a neighborhood known as Turnquist.
Every month or so, one couple changes out the flowers at a small headstone that marks the spot of the crash.
The investigation into the crash revealed that lighting sparked vapors in a fuel tank.
Fifty years later, it is still considered one of the worst lightning disasters.