Monuments to a Tragedy

Monuments to a Tragedy was originally written by Kim Ploughman for Downhome Magazine.

A community’s heritage can be a blazing part of its attraction. Hence, many municipalities throughout the province are compelled to unfold their history to brand a local distinctiveness.

When you set your heart on exploring the seaside towns and vistas of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s (PCSP) and Torbay, you may not think of a plane crash site, although both towns are minutes away from the St. John’s International Airport. Located between those two communities, on Bauline Line Extension, lies an aircraft wreckage field more than 44 years old.

The towns not only share a collective grief and sad legacy of this tragic event, but are collaborating to turn it into a tribute and a source of remembrance for the victims’ families and residents, as well as an historical attraction for tourists. While the memorial project is new, its story begins in 1978.

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1978, a Beechcraft plane lifted off from St. John’s airport. Chartered for L’Anse aux Meadows, the plane radioed it was climbing to 1,900 metres. Moments later, an emergency locator transmitter activated, indicating that a crash had occurred. By 11:45 a.m. the aircraft wreckage was located on Picco’s Ridge by a search and rescue helicopter, despite near zero visibility in dense fog.

A Beechcraft 80, similar to the one that crashed in 1978

On board the ill-fated flight were members of the National Historical Sites and Monuments Board and their families, who were heading north for an unveiling ceremony. One of the passengers on the plane was William (Bill) Manning, superintendent of Signal Hill and the first mayor of Torbay. Everyone on board, all eight passengers and two crewmembers, sustained fatal injuries on impact.

Nearly four decades later, in 2016, a Cougar helicopter pilot walked into the town office in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s and presented maps of the wreckage site on Picco’s Ridge. Town heritage and environment coordinator, Julie Pomeroy Sparrow, was intrigued by the aviation event, which had flown under the radar for most people in the town and region – including herself.

The town soon hired Dr. Lisa Daley, a leading aviation archeologist in North America, to document the site. She, along with Julie and local guide Gary Picco, hiked to Picco’s Ridge. “We were up on it and didn’t see it,” Julie recalls, explaining the location was difficult to get to and dense trees hid the scattered remains, including the fuselage. Once they’d located the site, taken pictures and documented all that they could about it, their findings were presented to PCSP town council. The council then approached the Town of Torbay with the idea of acknowledging this sombre event in local history.

“We felt it was important for them to be involved, given the personal linkage with Mr. Manning,” says Julie.

The two communities struck a joint committee, with members including Julie; Deanne Lawrence, economic development and tourism officer with the Town of Torbay; and other staff and heritage enthusiasts.

A Plan Comes Together

In October 2020, the towns issued a joint request for proposals on how to best plan and design a memorial for the location, as well as cost estimates for construction of the memorials. Consultant agency Mills and Wright was eventually hired to guide the project. After considerations of many factors, and public consultations, Mills and Wright “came up with a beautiful plan and concept,” Julie enthuses, explaining that, in fact, three memorials were proposed to commemorate the terrible crash between their towns.

Since the plane crash site is relatively difficult to access, and crosses private farmland, it was decided a permanent art installation in each community would be fitting to commemorate the crash and the loss of lives. The actual crash site itself on Picco’s Ridge will also have a small monument. There will be interpretation at each site. Following approvals of this concept by both councils, work has been steadily progressing, even as the pandemic has slowed things down.

The Town of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s will see a Pavilion of Reflection metal structure built on a popular trail in Voisey’s Brook Park – a fitting location given the crash site of Picco’s Ridge can be seen in the distance. “This monument will be a reflective approach,” explains Julie.

Out in Torbay, a Ring of Remembrance is envisioned for the gardens of its soon to be opened Heritage House Museum. The monument will also serve as an outdoor classroom for activities at the museum.
The shared project with separate monuments reflect the fact that “it’s a shared story, but a different story… different perspectives,” says Torbay committee member Deanne Lawrence.

The project may now move forward in phases for the partnered communities. Deanne indicates that Torbay
is committed to making strides this year, but with the town also celebrating its 50th year of municipal incorporation and Come Home Year, it could be next year before it all comes together. “There’s a lot happening this year; but we are very excited to move forward with this important commemorative project,” she says.

Julie also anticipates that the timeline to unveil this special monument in PCSP may be pushed to 2023. Both towns will hire a project manager to oversee the fabrication and instalment process.

Making it Real

There are many historic attractions in the province, and aviation history and crashes are increasingly becoming a part of tourists’ bucket lists. Having played an important role in early aviation due to its geographical location, Newfoundland and Labrador has a strong aviation narrative. This is evident in the historic flights of Alcock and Brown, as well as Amelia Earhart.

Now, another such site will be honoured by two seaside towns. And though decades have passed, the souls lost will be remembered and the crash site officially marked.

Julie says the collaboration between PCSP and Torbay “has been just wonderful.” Still, they are ever mindful that these monuments are not just an “attraction” – they mark spots touched deeply by human experience. “We didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that people died in this crash, and we want to be respectful while honouring those lives,” she says.

Deanne also stresses the sensitivity of this site, and says that for the town of Torbay and family members affected, “it will bring peace and an opportunity for them to reflect on their grief and loss.”

The monuments will have the names of the victims embedded, notes Deanne, which “will make it real.” She adds, “Ultimately, we want to honour this historic site, educate and allow for spaces to reflect, and achieve understanding and a sense of peace.”

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