Heroine of Maine's worst air disaster, the 1944 Redbank plane crash in South Portland, dies at 85

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Vina Hannan Sawyer did not spend a large part of her life in the city, but left an indelible mark in its history.

Born in Linneaus, Sawyer was 85 when she died June 2 near Houlton. Her death came almost 70 years after she played a heroic role as a 17-year-old girl in Maine’s worst air disaster.

On the afternoon of July 11, 1944, Sawyer was caring for children of shipyard employees who lived in temporary housing in the city’s Redbank neighborhood when an A-26 bomber piloted by South Portland native and Army Lt. Philip “Phee” Russell plowed into the area that is now part of the Olde English apartment complex.

More than 66 years later, Sawyer recalled she did not actually hear the crash, but was knocked unconscious as the world around her became an inferno.

Regaining consciousness, she saw 4-year-old Jimmy Little needed help.

“He was standing on a couch, screeching and hollering,” Sawyer said. “It may have been what woke me up.”

She recalled grabbing Jimmy, and running outside to find his 2-year-old sister, Nancy.

“Her dress was on fire, so I just grabbed her,” Sawyer said. She and the children fled across a gully.

Jimmy and Nancy died of their injuries, two of the 17 people on the ground who were killed. Allen and his passenger, Army Staff Sgt. Wallace Mifflin, also died in the crash that occurred as Allen’s family awaited his landing at what is now the Portland International Jetport.

Sawyer was burned on her arms, legs, neck and face, and said she spent five weeks recovering in the hospital. After World War II, she returned to northern Maine. She raised a family, survived two husbands, and worked for Visiting Nurses of Aroostook until she was 77.

Sawyer’s recollections came as she was to receive honors from former Gov. John Baldacci, who proclaimed Dec. 29, 2010, as a day in her honor.

Upon meeting Baldacci, Sawyer, then 84, pointed to the burn scars on her wrist.

“They say it will clear up by the time I’m 100, but I don’t want to live that long,” she said.

When South Portland resident John Kierstead was researching the crash, believing a memorial was necessary, he gathered archived newspaper accounts. One story he read said Sawyer was in grave condition, which he accepted until he got a phone call one night several years ago.

“I told her I had just read the line ‘not expected to survive,'” he recalled. “She said ‘well, I did.'”

Kierstead and others raised $11,000 for a granite monument etched with art and the names of the crash victims, now in the rotary at MacArthur Drive and Westbrook Street. It was dedicated on July 11, 2010, in a ceremony attended by Sawyer.

Kierstead said he gained a friend in Sawyer, who provided invaluable insight about the plane crash and the aftermath, adding she was humble about her heroism, but hardly retiring in her personality.

“I liked her immediately. I couldn’t tell a joke to her she wouldn’t scream about laughing. Then she would come back with one funnier,” he said.

As work on the memorial progressed, Kierstead and Herb Adams, a historian and former state legislator in Portland, sought recognition for Sawyer’s heroism.

In one of his last official acts, Baldacci signed the proclamation.

“It is not a pardon, but it is the next best thing,” he said as he clasped Sawyer’s hands and gave her his pen.

Kierstead said Sawyer always expressed her gratitude for his work. When they first met at a truck stop outside Bangor, she asked him to sing the song he wrote about the plane crash.

“I wish I’d known her when I was 18, she was a doll. She adopted me like a grandson,” Kierstead said.

He said he and others will lay a wreath for at the monument at 4:45 p.m. on July 11.

Services were held Tuesday for Sawyer in Linneaus. She is survived by two sons, Robert McGuire and wife, Sheila, of Virginia and Christopher McGuire and wife, Linda, of Linneus; a daughter, Cynthia (McGuire) and Bruce Scott of Ludlow; two stepsons, Scott and Linda Sawyer of Mechanic Falls and Steve and Lisa Sawyer of Portland; 12 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren; one sister, Vivian Fortier and her husband, Earl, of Virginia; brother-in-law Ervin Smith of Monticello; sister-in-law, Evelyn Hannan of Connecticut.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Vina Hannan Sawyer, second from left, rings a bell in July 2010 in honor of victims of the 1944 military airplane crash in South Portland as city resident John Kierstead unveils a memorial to the 19 victims of the crash. Sawyer, who died June 2, rescued two children from the crash scene while sustaining burns on her arms, legs, neck and face.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.