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Design chosen for South Portland plane crash memorial

News

Design chosen for South Portland plane crash memorial

Group begins fundraising efforts

SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of residents hoping to build a memorial to the state's biggest aviation disaster announced it has chosen a design and will begin fundraising.

The memorial will commemorate a 1944 plane crash in the Redbank neighborhood that killed 19 people and injured 20, mostly women and children. 

The crash occurred at 4:45 p.m. on July 11, when Army Lt. Philip Russell was returning to South Portland to visit his family during World War II. Prior to becoming a military flight instructor, Russell had been a star athlete at South Portland High School in football, baseball and basketball. 

South Portland Historical Society Director Kathy DiPhilippo said Russell's wife, Alma, and their newborn daughter watched Russell's A-26 Invader, a twin-engine bomber, circle the runway waiting to land. Instead of watching the plane gently touch down on the tarmac, they saw the plane crash into a trailer park that housed shipyard workers.

"The plane crashed into the trailers, exploding, sending fuel all over," DiPhilippo said. "I can't imagine the horrors people saw there. Just a terrible, terrible tragedy."

DiPhilippo said as many as 60 people lost their homes, in addition to those killed or injured.

Survivors of the plane crash still have raw emotions and skepticism about the official report about the crash. DiPhilippo said the Historical Society held an evening chat about the crash, and she came away with the feeling that no one will ever know what actually caused the crash, whether it was the airplane, weather or pilot error.

"There are still people in (South Portland) today who are affected by this tragedy," she said. "People who were kids at the time remember classmates from the Redbank School who died." 

A memorial to commemorate the crash is being planned on Westbrook Street near Redbank Village, across the street from the crash site, which is where the Old English Village swimming pool is located. The memorial was designed by local artist Matt Donahue and will be built by Millennium Granite Quarry & Stoneworks of Wells.

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 the clouds. 

John Kierstead, who is leading the memorial effort, said the granite bench will be dedicated to the survivors of the disaster, which was the second plane crash in the state that day. Kierstead, a member of the Historical Society, said a B-17 crashed in northern Maine, killing all 10 people on board.

"Twenty nine people died that day," Kierstead said. "I've known about the (South Portland) crash since I was a kid. These people should be memorialized. This is our time to fix that." 

Kierstead said he has not received an initial cost estimate for the monument. However, he hopes to raise the money and have the monument installed this summer so it can be dedicated on the 35th anniversary of the crash. 

"If it happens, great," Kierstead said. "All it takes is one sugar daddy."

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."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.