- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - When Jean Garst Saunders talks about the town of Danbury, she gets emotional.

The town has been a site of both tragedy and healing for the Roanoke woman and her family.

On a foggy day in 1963, her father died in a plane crash in the mountains of Stokes County. Fifty years later, volunteers in that community banded together to help Saunders visit the crash site for the first time.

Saunders learned in 2012 that the plane was still located in the backwoods of Hanging Rock State Park. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and has had several joint replacements. The steep hike to the crash site - in an area far from any trails - was out of the question.

But on a beautiful day last November, members of the Danbury Volunteer Fire Department and other volunteers carried her up the mountain in a rescue basket.

“It just meant more to me than I can ever tell anyone,” Saunders said, choking up with emotion. “These people don’t know me from anybody.”

But Jim Hicks, chief of the fire department, simply says they would do the same for anyone.

“This is what Stokes County’s about,” he said.

Saunders had just turned 17 when she learned that her father, Robert T. Garst, and co-worker George O. Davis had died in a plane crash the morning of May 21, 1963. Three others were injured. They were all employees of Grand Piano and Furniture Co. in Roanoke, Va., and were on a business trip.

The Winston-Salem Journal’s account the morning after explained that the twin-engine private plane crashed into a mountain at Hanging Rock State Park during a gathering storm.

Billy and Clara Jean Nelson were working in a tobacco field the day of the accident.

“We live in sight of the mountain, but we didn’t see the crash. It was foggy, but it went behind the fog and we heard it,” Clara Jean Nelson said.

Billy Nelson dropped his work and ran to the site. He was one of the first people on the scene, one that he finds hard to describe.

News accounts say it was a few hours before rescue workers were able to make their way through the thick growth and up the side of the mountain to transport the dead and injured.

Saunders said she felt numb when she heard the news. Her dad was the company pilot, and she had flown in that plane numerous times. She said there were three experienced pilots in the plane when it crashed.

“It was so sudden, and (dad) and I were so close,” she said.

But she said she had to be strong for her mom and sister.

Saunders never knew exactly where the plane went down. When her family traveled through North Carolina on summer trips to the beach, she would look at the mountains and wonder.

“Tears would come, and I would swallow the emotions and carry on,” she said.

Saunders‘ road to discovery and healing began 49 years later, when she made a jarring discovery.

In the spring of 2012, she came across a website with North Carolina death certificates and decided to see if her father’s was there.

Her mother had told her that her father died instantly from a broken neck, but his death certificate said he died from a fractured skull and chest injuries and had lived for 20 minutes after the crash.

“I felt like someone had kicked me in the chest,” Saunders said.

She was tormented by the information. Did her father leave a message? How long did he truly suffer?

“I think I basically ran from it for 49 years, until I learned my dad lived for 20 minutes after the crash,” Saunders said. “There is a difference in thinking he died instantly and knowing he lived 20 minutes.”

If she had known that her father didn’t die on impact, maybe she would have traveled to Danbury - the town mentioned in the news articles - to seek more information about his death.

After many sleepless nights, Saunders decided she needed to go. She knew she could not get all of the answers she wanted decades later, but she needed to be close to where her father died and she needed to pray.

Saunders planned the trip for Oct. 16, 2012, which would have been her parents’ 75th wedding anniversary.

Her husband, Mike, decided to send an email with the subject line “Do You Remember?” to Monty Stevens, the head of emergency services in Stokes County at the time. The email asked if anyone in the area remembered the crash.

“Good luck,” Saunders told her husband, not believing anyone would take the email seriously.

Stevens was only a child at the time of the crash.

“I could’ve easily deleted that email, because I didn’t have a clue, but I called Jim (Hicks),” Stevens said.

Hicks knew of the accident, though he had not been part of the rescue efforts. Danbury didn’t even have a formal fire department in 1963 and wouldn’t for another four years. But he knew Billy Nelson was one of the rescuers.

The timing was remarkable, because the Nelsons had recently received a visit from a local man, Skip Staples, who was trying to figure out the history of a plane he had hiked to after a friend saw it on satellite images.

The pieces started falling into place when Saunders came in contact with Staples.

“I had no idea that the plane was still on the mountain,” Saunders said.

Staples agreed to take Saunders‘ sons on a hike to the site when the family visited in October.

“Of course,” Staples said. “Who would say no to that?”

Saunders‘ son, Michael, made a sign to place there in memory of the victims.

“It’s amazing, looking at the crash, that anybody survived. It was quite a devastating crash as far as the damage to the aircraft,” Michael Saunders said.

Local minister Dale Walker went along to hold a prayer service on the mountain.

“It was a real spiritual experience. For me, it was almost like God was saying, ‘Everything is OK. This was a bad and tragic event in your mom’s life, but everything’s OK,” Michael Saunders said.

Jean Saunders could not go on the actual hike, but she got to meet the Nelsons and others. She learned from Billy Nelson that her dad was unconscious and still strapped in his seat when he arrived at the scene. Nelson said he thinks he saw her father breathe a few times.

Saunders thanked him for his efforts that day.

Saunders felt more at peace after her trip to Danbury.

She had no idea what was to come.

Her sons hiked to the plane again on the 50th anniversary of the crash, this time with a reporter who put together a piece for public radio.

Tim Watkins happened to be listening in.

Watkins was 11 years old in 1963 when he saw a plane pass over his family’s farm near Lawsonville. He told his mom that the plane was too low and wasn’t going to make it over the mountain. He waved at the plane and knew the passengers could see him.

A few days later, his mother told him that he was right, that the plane didn’t make it. It bothered him for months and even years, but eventually the accident faded from his memory. The radio broadcast rekindled the memory.

Watkins was able to get in touch with Saunders, who said she wished she could have visited the site.

“I thought, ‘Surely there’s some way we can get her up there.’ I just knew she wasn’t going to have closure or anything until she visited,” Watkins said.

So he put a plan in motion. He met with the fire department and the park service to discuss the possibilities. He realized that it was a strange request.

“We’ve never had to carry anyone up (the mountain),” noted Donnie Mabe, Danbury’s assistant fire chief. Normally rescue workers are carrying people down the mountain.

But the fire department workers never hesitated.

The Danbury Volunteer Fire Department is what the name implies - a volunteer-run organization. It has just more than 30 firemen.

“They will do anything that they possibly can do to help somebody,” Stevens said.

The park service was also helpful, though the crash site is not a place they would typically want hikers to visit.

Sam Koch, a park ranger at Hanging Rock, said, “I really felt strongly that (Saunders) deserved to be able to go up there and visit.”

Volunteers got to work plotting the best course through the undergrowth. The easiest way to get there crossed private property, so they got permission from the owner. They applied for a special activity permit from the park because of the large group.

On the morning of Nov. 30, the group drove within a mile of the site.

There were about 50 volunteers in all. Danbury had called on local fire departments to send some volunteers and to man their station during the outing.

Saunders was transported on a type of rescue stretcher called a Stokes basket. Danbury’s has a wheel attached, so volunteers were able to part roll, part carry Saunders to the crash site within a couple of hours.

“Actually being there on the site looks totally different than the pictures,” she said.

She pictured a large area of scattered wreckage, but it was in a fairly small space.

Her five children and most of her grandchildren accompanied her.

“I know that it meant a lot to them, and it meant everything to me. They’ve certainly heard about my dad. He’s been very much a part of all of our lives, although he was long gone before they got here,” Saunders said.

She took flowers to the site and got a scoop of dirt from where her father had been placed before he was transported down the mountain.

Saunders believes the entire experience was a gift from God, like her father were reaching out and hugging her through the kind people of Danbury.

The volunteers wouldn’t take any pay.

“The pay I got was the closure for her and seeing what it meant to her when she was up there,” Watkins said.

When the Saunders family and volunteers got back to the fire department, the ladies’ auxiliary surprised them with a meal.

“To take time out of their lives and do that for us is something that I get kind of emotional talking about, because it renews my faith in human beings,” Michael Saunders said.

Jean Saunders describes the experience as life-changing, and it was all made possible by people who went out of their way for a stranger.

“The plane crash was the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of (my dad). Now the plane crash is still there, but not the way it was before. Happy memories are what come first,” she said.


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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