Monday, January 2, 2012

A Dramatic Search and Rescue (Part Two)

Dean Smith 1928Concern mounted on Sunday among the Adirondack plane-crash victims after two nights in the wilderness. Clearing skies had brought the promise of rescue, but frustration set in as more than 20 times, planes approached the site but failed to detect the wreckage. Walking a mile or more from the crash led only to more cliffs, mountains, and deep snow. As the day wore on, darkness and cold changed their condition from miserable to dangerous. The temperature had dropped to well below zero, and the men were exhausted from struggling through the deep snow for bits of firewood.

As the situation deteriorated and death drew closer, action was needed. It was decided to drain some gasoline from a fuel tank and set a tree on fire. There seemed a good chance one of the few night fliers would see the signal.
Among those still searching was Dean Smith, who, like Ernest Dryer, was an experienced mail delivery flier. His great piloting skill on the historic Antarctica mission in 1929 had earned high praise from Admiral Richard Byrd, and his never-say-die attitude was highly valued.

At 5:05 on Sunday afternoon, Smith had been in the air for twelve hours. As darkness enveloped the region, he spotted a light in the forest below.

It had worked! The flaming birch tree set afire by the crew served as an enormous torch. High above them, Smith shared the excitement in a quick radio broadcast, confirming for the outside world that all four men were alive. He circled continuously above the sight, finally being replaced by an army plane.

Dryer and the others on the ground realized they had been sighted, and assumed the plane circling overhead was serving as a guide for rescue teams on the ground. But they also knew it was possible they wouldn’t survive. The temperature had dipped to between 25 and 30 degrees below zero. They were hungry, weak, deathly cold, and fading fast. The ground fire was minimal, and they knew it was a matter of hours before the end would come.

Multiple search crews, some using horses and sleighs, suffered all day Sunday in hellish conditions of relentless cold and deep snow. Late in the day, several recognized that the circling plane was intended as a beacon, and they moved towards the site. Frostbite forced some to eventually turn back, while others struggled on.

One of the teams heading for the woods was from Hoffmeister, a civilian crew of nine men: four Kreuzers—Earl (32), Floyd (36), George (58), and Bert (62); three Partellos—Dan (37); Charles (41), and Lester (53); Henry Hart (42); and Albert Palm (19). Dismayed at the wait-and-see attitude of some officials, they took to the woods, knowing the survivors by now must be in dire straits, if they were, in fact, alive.

They had noticed a plane circling to the south, and their best guess was that a pilot had spotted the wreckage. The men snowshoed for miles through difficult conditions, guided by the plane above. Ernie Dryer and his crew knew the end was near, but as the plane flew in ever-tightening circles, they could only wonder if a rescue might be imminent. Then … three gunshots! It was music to their ears. In reply, Ernie fired off three rounds from his pistol.

At 10:40 p.m., more than five and a half hours after Dean Smith located the wreckage, the Hoffmeister men arrived at the site. Floyd Kreuzer later described the moment: “These lost fliers presented the most pitiful sight I have ever seen. They had managed to construct a shelter of bent saplings and pieces of plane fabric and were huddled about a tiny fire, which was getting very low. Their heads were wrapped in cloths; improvised leggings and boots of the plane upholstery encased their legs and feet.

“When we approached the four stranded fliers, they were shaking and were almost too weak to talk. They told us they had almost given up hope of rescue and did not believe they could have lasted two hours longer. …With temperatures of 20–25 degrees below zero, it is a mystery to us to understand how they ever survived …”

“Their faces and hands were chapped from frost. Their lips were cracked open and bleeding and their faces were smeared from smoke and soot from the fire. I want to tell you, those men had courage. They kept their heads and didn’t get panicky even when they knew that death was right next to them.”

Despite the long, exhausting trip through deep snows, the rescue crew went right to work. Some cut and gathered wood to build a large fire, while others fed the men and put wool socks on them. Within minutes of their arrival, an army plane dropped supplies by parachute, but the package became tangled in the top of a tall tree.

Using only a hatchet, three of the men hacked away for an hour until the tree fell, leaving the parachute caught in a smaller tree. Charlie Partello climbed it and retrieved the valued booty: chocolate bars, sandwiches, wine, and cigarettes.

The men were made comfortable with plane cushions atop spruce boughs and plenty of heat from the fire, and were put to bed. Floyd Kreuzer and Lester Partello remained at the site, while the others departed for more supplies and rescue materials.

Several hours after daybreak, help arrived on the scene with food and other necessities, while additional supplies were air-dropped, prompting Floyd to note that, “… we now had enough food to start a restaurant.”

Before noon, the parties had started for civilization. After more than sixty hours in the frozen wilds, Ernie was hauled out by toboggan, while the other three men walked as much as they could on the trek of about six miles.

At Hoffmeister, they were offered first aid and then were taken by ambulance to the hospital in Utica. Robert Hamgood, uninjured, flew to Washington that night, while the others remained in the hospital. Brown was in good shape, but suffered from exposure and frostbite.

The Dryer brothers began healing from non-life-threatening injuries. Dale’s face was bruised and his jaw had indeed been broken. Ernie had hip injuries, broken ribs, frostbite on his hands and feet, a fever, and an inflamed throat.

In the hospital, the brothers were joined by an unusual quartet: their wives, Helen and Helen Dryer; their sister, Helen; and their mother … you guessed it … Helen.

Within several days, Ernie became the last survivor to leave the hospital, and just two weeks after he was rescued, Dryer was back on the job, flying the US mail to multiple stops between Cleveland and Boston.

The men who first reached the crash site were awarded $25 ($400 in 2011) by the airline company, and were whisked off to Albany to accept personal thanks from Governor Lehman for the happy conclusion of a story that had been followed anxiously by millions. Months later, during a vacation, Ernie Dryer visited Morehouseville and nearby settlements to do the same.

If you’ve ever encased yourself in modern gear and headed to the woods for hours in below-zero weather, you’ll marvel even more at the odds those men overcame. Any of three factors—the storm, the crash, the cold—could have killed them.

And if not for the relentless efforts of ham radio operators and regional air stations, of pilots in the air (especially Dean Smith), and of numerous ground crews who risked their lives to save others, the four almost certainly would have perished.

Capping it all off was the matter-of-fact attitude of the Hoffmeister crew. Knowing that temperatures of 30 below zero meant certain doom for the men, if they were in fact still alive, they set out in the dark of night, in bitter cold, and in deep snow, trekking for miles to pull off an amazing, successful rescue, perhaps the greatest such story in Adirondack history.

Next week: How the rescue in Hamilton County became part of communications history.

Photos: Above, Dean Smith, the pilot who located the crash site; Middle, the Morehouseville crash site; Below, Ernest Dryer, Jack Brown, Dale Dryer, and Richard Hamgood, reunited in the hospital at Utica.


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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

4 Responses

  1. Lawrence P. Gooley says:
  2. John Spear says:

    There is a picture of a pilot identified as Dean Smith (at the end of the article.) I don’t know who it is BUT it definitely isn’t of Dean. Dean and my father were the best of friends. Dean was 6 feet 4 inches and had a big nose. I fished with him, played bridge against him, visited him in his apartment at 410 Park Ave, NYC and his home in Beverly Hills the nigth Armstrong set foot on the moon.

    • Larry says:

      Thanks for the input. The previous picture (captioned as Dean Smith and featured prominently in the media 80 years ago) has been replaced above with another photo (also captioned as Dean Smith at the time). The man in the replacement photo appears to fit the description you gave.

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