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It began with a whoosh! Afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Homestead High Level Bridge was shocked to a standstill as an olive drab behemoth swooped from the sky.
It was 4:09 p.m. on January 31, 1956. Although some would maintain that the TB-25N twin-engine bomber, serial number 44-29125, missed them by inches, cooler heads would prevail and estimate that the aircraft, longer than a streetcar with a 67-foot wingspan, missed clipping the bridge by a good 30 feet. Folks rushed to the railing in time to observe the plane, out of fuel, both engines silent, ditch in the icy waters of the Monongahela (locally known as the Mon) River below.
The bomber made a flawless belly landing. Suffering damage to its radio compass antenna housing, but otherwise completely intact, the rugged warbird raced downstream, serving as an impromptu lifeboat for the survivors before finally sinking about one mile and 17 minutes later near the Jones and Laughlin steel plant.
Every craft on the water rushed to the aid of the downed airmen. Officially rescued safely were Maj. William L. Dotson, the pilot; Capt. John F. Jamieson, the co-pilot; MSgt. Alfred P. Alleman; and Airman Charles L. Smith, passengers. The bodies of Capt. Jean P. Ingraham, passenger, and SSgt. Walter E. Soocey, Crew Chief, were recovered on April 8 and May 28, 1956.
Dragging operations to locate the bomber began the following morning, and Patrolman Harry Ebaling of the River Patrol snagged what he believed to be the aircraft in the approximate location where witnesses said the aircraft sank. The Coast Guard Cutter Forsythia marked the location with a lighted buoy.
On Thursday, February 2, the Forsythia commenced dragging operations using a 350-pound anchor attached to a manila towrope two inches in diameter. An object was snagged at 6:00 p.m. and brought to the surface. It appeared to be a wing of the aircraft. The anchor slipped off the object and it sank back into the river. Another attempt snapped the towline, losing the anchor. A smaller anchor with a steel cable was rigged up and it was lost as well.
Searchers suspended all search and dragging operations pending the manufacture of a special “grappling hook” that was being produced by the Coraopolis Tool and Machine Company. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arranged to have the dredging barge Monello II moved in for dragging operations.
River Patrol officers sent out a hurried call to the Coast Guard on Friday, February 3. Sgt. Pete Settnek said the buoy marking the sunken B-25 had drifted about half a mile downstream from its original position.
The Monello II arrived at 2:30 p.m. on February 4. The area where the airplane was briefly brought to the surface was swept thoroughly but nothing was found. In the meantime, the Forsythia arrived and proceeded to drag the main channel with the special grappling hook. All search operations were suspended at 7:30 p.m. when fog settled over the area and it became too dangerous to continue.
At least one report alleges that a gadget to detect radioactivity was aboard an Air Force H21 helicopter brought from Olmstead Air Force Base, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that made several low passes up and down the Monongahela River on February 8. The reason given: some of the plane’s dials were radium-coated to enable reading in the dark.
All official search operations were abandoned by Valentine’s Day. The Air Force put the B-25 up for sale on November 9, 1956, via sealed invitation bid. The only bidder was John Evans, of Pleasant Hills, a Pittsburgh-area seaplane pilot, who paid $10 for salvage rights to the $200,000 aircraft and spent months searching without luck.
Curious divers have since scoured every inch of river bottom. All they ever got was wet. Everything from crude grappling hooks to modern detection devices have been employed over the years. No trace of that aircraft was ever found.
It was as if it never existed.
Read the rest of Robert Goerman's article on the missing bomber mystery exclusively in the May-June 2009 issue of FATE! Click here to purchase this issue.