Thursday, 11 April 2013

CLARE ROOTS SOCIETY... "From a Rock to a Hard Place"

From A Rock To A Hard Place; By Tony Cassidy
6.30 Thur 18th April. at the Civic Rooms Ennis Town Council, Drumbiggle, Ennis 
As part of its local history publishing programme and following on the success of books on Steele’s Terrace, O’Connell Street, St Columba’s Church of Ireland and Drumcliff Cemetery (Calvary Section), as an extension to the latter and to co-incide with the 65th anniversary, Clare Roots Society will launch its latest publication From A Rock To A Hard Place - The story of the Crash of Pan American “Empress of the Skies” at Shannon Airport on 15 April 1948 this week.

The booklet has been written by Tony Cassidy, married to a Co Clare lady for over forty-three years and living in Ennis for past eight yearsTony has had an interest in this tragic accident going back over 22 years and with assistance from the first man on the scene and now 91; from a Pan American Radio Officer, again 91 and living in New Mexico who flew sister Constellation aircraft at that time;  and from aviation experts in Zurich, Switzerland and Belfast, he has finally been able to complete the tragic story.  Many of the photographs have never been published before.

An accident so horrific in Shannon Airport that it made headlines around the world.. these are just two clippings from the Australian press at the time..
 Click on images to enlarge

 More details follow the clippings....

Just before midnight on Wednesday 14 April 1948, Captain Frank Jakel was sitting on the tarmac of London Heathrow Airport at the controls of Pan American Airways Lockheed Constellation ClipperEmpress of the Skies”.  With his crew of nine, he had just taken over the aircraft following a scheduled crew change. As part of the handover, the Pan Am’s ground maintenance supervisor reported that the instrument lighting had failed during the landing at the previous stop, Brussels, and again on approach to Heathrow itself.  The cause was a faulty rheostat switch (a device used to vary the resistance in an electrical circuit without interrupting the circuit), but no replacement could be found at the London maintenance base. The aircraft had to be flown as it was to the USA for repairs or the crew and passengers would have to wait until a replacement part was flown across from New York, and that would take a day or two.   However, the lighting again appeared to be working normally.

Two more landings, a stop-and-go at Shannon to drop of one passenger and a refuelling stop at Gander, Newfoundland, and they would be back at Pan Am’s LaGuardia, New York base.  Weather reports were favourable which could not always be said.   The aircraft was refuelled.  Capt Jakel and Al Grottle, the Flight Engineering Officer, signed-off the maintenance supervisor’s report and the decision was taken to depart for Shannon at 35 minutes past mid night on Thursday 15 April.

Weather forecasts available in London had indicated that at the time of arrival at Shannon, the ceiling there would be 700 feet with a higher cloud layer at 1,000 feet, and visibility 4 miles.  However a revised forecast indicating 300 feet was supplied to Pan Am at Shannon, but by then the aircraft had departed from London.

As the crew of “Empress of the Skies” neared Shannon, they requested permission to make a practice approach to Runway 23 using its Instrument Landing System. Subsequently they reported a missed approach and advised that they were making a go-around for a second approach.  The aircraft was not seen again in the misty conditions until after it struck the ground at 02:34. 

A local newspaper reported that the aircraft “first hit a number of trees growing in a row, tore the tops off them and careered for a distance of 200 yards tearing through thick shrubbery and finally stopping at a hillock where it burst into flames”  and  “The aircraft was then seen blazing among the crags at a point some 300 yards in from the main road at Cahertigue.

At the inquest it was stated that the accident occurred “within 800 yards of Runway 23 and in direct line with the runway. It occurred on the lands of Mr Michael Moylan of Cahertigue and within 200 yards of Mr Moylan’s house and about the same distance from the house of Mr Thomas Hogan.”   A local newspaper also reported: “John Hogan of Cahertigue got up and went to the scene of the crash which was about 150 or 200 yards from his house.”

Having fully detailed the airline; the round-the-world flight and its route; the departure from Heathrow; the arrival and crash at Shannon; and the subsequent inquests and Investigations, the second half of this booklet turns to detailed accounts of the people involved.  On board were at least six different nationalities of eight different religious faiths, but in death, which came quickly, few could be identified. Apart from three of the crew identified by their location at the front of the cockpit and a mother identified by her baby clasped tightly to her chest, the only other body identified was that of Sir Homi Mehta an Indian millionaire banker identified by part of his passport embedded in his remains.

The booklet covers, in detail, the crew; the passengers; the sole survivor; the first man on the scene who is still alive at 91 and living in Newmarket-on-Fergus; the would-be rescuers; the inquest; the preparation of the mass grave at Drumcliff Cemetery and the burial on Saturday 17 April; the care and attention given to the maintenance of the grave of the nineteen victims buried there, far from home; and finally the honour and respect still maintained by relatives.

From A Rock To A Hard Place – from the rock of Moylan’s Crag near Shannon airport to the stony soil of Drumcliff Cemetery – stony but soft and sheltering.

"The respect and dignity that the people of Ennis have bestowed to the gravesite
of the Pan Am accident victims is a testament to their own humanity and nobility
for which we are grateful. Sixty-five years later, we still grieve our loss, but we
take comfort in knowing that a gravesite existed all along and that it was looked
after by the kind hearted and generous people of Ennis. May God bless the people
of Ennis and keep eternal the memory of our loved ones for whom Ennis is their eternal place of repose."
                                                      Jeffrey Ghannam,
                February 2013


  1. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to see the beauty of humanity. Sad story, great post.

  2. I think that sums it up very well, Fi... we do see the best of people at the worst of times. Thank you for your comment.


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