A Tampa woman on a quest to find the remains of her grandfather whose Air Force transport plane crashed and disappeared into an Alaska glacier 60 years ago made an emotional visit to the site last month.
Tonja Anderson-Dell saw firsthand where the glacier churned up the wreckage. She met and talked with the recovery crew, including Alaska National Guard Capt. Brian Keese, who first spotted parts of the wreckage on the Colony Glacier's surface from his Black Hawk helicopter in June.
"I've been dealing with this for so long, 14 years, and I was there and I was hearing everything they did to get those 52 men out of that glacier,'' Anderson-Dell said. "I had tears in my eyes."
Anderson-Dell viewed pieces of the Air Force C-124A Globetrotter and flew over the glacier where the debris emerged in June. The wreckage was swallowed by the grinding glacier after it crashed in 1952 and churned to the surface as the monster river of ice scraped its way down a mountainside.
It still could be months – maybe longer – before any of the remains are positively identified. The military still is trying to locate the descendants of five servicemen who died in the crash to complete its DNA databank.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), which searches out missing military personnel all over the Pacific Rim, has collected several crates of debris since June and some traces of human remains.
Speaking from her JPAC headquarters in Hawaii, Capt. Jamie Dobson said military units in Alaska are monitoring the glacier but no more debris likely will be recovered as winter moves in.
Not that being on the glacier in the summer is any less dangerous, she said, when recovery crews were there to collect what they could.
"There was a lot of shifting ice," she said.
The C-124A troop transport crashed into a mountain and slid into the glacier in November 1952, killing everyone aboard. A winter storm then blew in, making recovery efforts impossible. Months later, when the winter weather cleared, searchers went to the site but found that the glacier had swallowed the wreckage and remains.
Most of the 52 people aboard were servicemen bound for Korea. The dead include Anderson-Dell's grandfather, Isaac Anderson, a 21-year-old Tampa man who had been in the Air Force for not quite a year-and-a-half.
He left behind a 20-year-old wife, Dorothy, and 18-month old son, Isaac Jr., who 41 years ago, fathered Tonja.
The debris surfaced 12 miles from the crash site, about 40 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska. Since June, members of the Alaska National Guard have volunteered their time to look for and collect debris that surfaced. Each training flight in the area is instructed to swing by the glacier to see if any more debris has emerged, Dobson said.
Eight large crates of debris have been collected since June, she said.
"They found wallets and Social Security cards," she said. "They found a lifeboat in a bag and instructions on how to fish for the people who had never fished before. There was a manual on Morse code and they showed me the navigator's charting manual.''
Searchers also found a mailbag and large pieces of the plane itself.
Anderson-Dell's quest began more than a dozen years ago when she got the go-ahead from her grandmother, Dorothy, to research the crash. Her grandmother died in 2001, a year before the Air Force presented a flag to the Anderson family at MacDill Air Force Base.
In the beginning, Anderson-Dell believed she was the only relative asking about the plane. She built a Facebook page and began contacting families of other victims. Together, they are keeping track of progress.
She said a memorial is scheduled sometime next year at the nearby Alaska National Guard base, and she plans to return for that.