SOUTH PORTLAND — A memorial observance on the 65th anniversary of one of the state’s worst aviation disasters will be held this weekend on Westbrook Street.
The service will honor the victims and survivors of a July 11, 1944, tragedy that killed 19 people and injured 20, many of whom were women and children living in the Redbank neighborhood. Among the victims was U.S. Army Lt. Phillip “Phee” Russell, who was the pilot and only person aboard the military plane. Russell was on his way home to South Portland to visit his family during World War II.
Survivors from the Redbank neighborhood have questioned the official explanation of what caused the A-26 Invader to crash into trailers that housed shipyard workers. According to the South Portland Historical Society, the official report never adequately explained what happened.
Event Organizer John Kierstead said that several survivors and witnesses will be present for the ceremony, which will start at 11 a.m. Saturday at the entrance to Redbank Village, the site of a proposed monument. The ceremony will last about an hour.
Kierstead said the ceremony will include the laying of a wreath, followed by 19 bell strokes, one for each person who was killed. The Fire Department is planning on ringing the bell of a 1941-era Mack fire engine that was used to put out the flames.
Kierstead credited firefighters David Rodrique and Philip Viola for making the ceremony happen. “They were the hunters and I was the gun dog on this one,” he said. “They pushed me to do it, and I’m glad they did.”
Kierstead said he has spoken with several survivors still grappling with the loss of family members. Some of those people will be on hand Saturday.
“It’s such a part of this community,” he said. “It’s in the subconscious.”
A Litchfield woman who lost her entire family in the crash plans to attend, Kierstead said.
“She happened to be going across the street to the store when the tragedy occurred and that was the last time she ever saw her family,” he said.
Kierstead is leading efforts to build the permanent memorial. As horrible as the original incident was, he said, “it’s even more horrible that this hasn’t been observed and hasn’t been given a memorial.”
A sketch of the five-foot memorial shows two embedded granite images on a large stone, with one inset facing a granite bench. One plaque will show the names of those who perished in the accident, while the other will depict a WWII pilot, holding a boy and girl by the hand, walking away into a cloud.
Kierstead said he hopes to install 19 roughly cut stones to commemorate each victim, an idea he picked up while viewing a holocaust memorial in Poland. He said fundraisers have collect about $1,500 towards a $10,000 goal.
Memorial contributions may be sent to South Portland City Hall, 25 Cottage Road, South Portland, ME 04106. Checks should be made out to “City of South Portland c/o Long Creek/Redbank Tragedy.”