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South Portland air crash memorial takes shape, dedication planned for July 11

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South Portland air crash memorial takes shape, dedication planned for July 11

SOUTH PORTLAND — Dozens of planes pass over Brick Hill to land at the Portland International Jetport every day.

But it was a landing of a very different sort that recently attracted a small crowd.

A handful of city officials and residents were on hand June 24 to witness the arrival of a granite memorial commemorating one of the state's worst aviation disasters.

A formal dedication ceremony will be held on July 11 at 2 p.m. at the entrance to Redbank Village on Westbrook Street for the Long Creek Memorial.

"This is the air drop before the invasion," said resident John Keirstead, who spearheaded the project.

The monument will commemorate a horrific plane crash that on July 11, 1944, claimed the lives of 19 people from 9 months to 42 years old. Twenty others were injured.

Rich Bois, of Millenium Granite, said the triangular piece of granite, which stands 7 feet tall and 51 inches wide, weighs about two tons.

One of the front faces lists the names of the people killed; the other face is inscribed with South Portland resident's Matt Donahue's depiction of a pilot holding hands with two children, walking into the clouds.

There will also be a bench dedicated to those who survived the accident.

The crash happened when U.S. Army Lt. Phillip Russell of South Portland lost control of his A-26 invader and crashed into a densely populated trailer park housing World War II shipyard workers.

Russell was returning home to visit his wife and 3-month-old daughter, both of whom witnessed the crash from an airport observatory tower.

Kierstead said Russell past the tower and circled back for his runway approach. There were reports from witnesses that smoke and fire was seen coming out of one of the plane's two engines, he said. 

The plane may have clipped a tree, Kierstead said, before it "Frisbeed" into the trailers, each of which would have had a 55-gallon drum of heating oil or kerosene.

"(The oil) blew up into the atmosphere, became a plasma and caught fire," he said.

Mechanic Falls resident Rita Cesare was also on hand for the monument's arrival. Cesare was 11 1/2 years old when the disaster took place. She said she can remember seeing her father covered in oil and running towards Long Creek to get away from the flames.

"The plan crashed three streets over from us, but the parts flew all over," the 77-year-old said. "There were people on fire and running in the street."

Karen Allen was only 2 years old when the tragedy took place. Since her parents never talked about it, she said the only details about the crash she knows are contained in news reports sent to her by relatives in Rochester, N.Y.

"People lost their lives and their homes," the 68-year-old said. "I happened to be one of the lucky ones. I survived it."

Kierstead said the July 11 ceremony will feature a keynote address from U.S. Navy Cmdr. Richard Stratton, who spent 6 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam's infamous "Hanoi Hilton."

Invitations were also sent to U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Kierstead said. While Snowe cannot attend, he still hopes to hear from Collins.

"I wanted them to attest to the feminine bravery that happened on that day," Kierstead said of the women who made multiple trips into burning homes to save children. "Some people think bravery is taking your top off and walking down Congress Street. This is the real deal."

Erecting a monument to commemorate the incident has been Kierstead's passion for nearly two years. He has collected more than $11,500 to pay for the monument and its installation. He will continue to accept donations to help the city pay for maintenance.

Meanwhile, Kierstead is looking forward to July 11 at 4:40 p.m., when survivors will unveil the memorial.

"After July 11, it will no longer be referred to as the Long Creek Tragedy," he said. "The only tragedy is that it took 66 years to do this."

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