$10,000 needed to create memorial to fire victims

15 years ago

Houlton’s Vina Sawyer lives through airplane tragedy in South Portland on July 11, 1944
By Gloria Austin 
Staff Writer
    An 18-year-old enveloped in devastation. But, she will never forget that fateful day in July.
    For 83-year-old Vina Sawyer of Houlton, she was one of the lucky ones. She survived.
    Steaks were on cooking, neighbors chatting, children at play, the trailer park was full of life … what was a typical day was suddenly chock-full of ear-piercing screams, shrieks of agony … sheer horror.
     According to a newspaper account, an Army bomber piloted by Lt. Philip I. Russell, 23, was on course to land at the Portland Municipal Airport after flying from a Louisiana air base. But, what happened at 4:30 p.m. turned into one of the worst air crashes in Maine’s history on July 11, 1944.
    Sawyer, whose maiden name was Hannan, grew up in Linneus and decided to visit her sister in South Portland. Her sister knew of a family who needed summer help, so Sawyer opted to take on a mother’s helper role for the Littles.
    Hazel V. Little, 24, a shipbuilder whose husband was drafted to war, was raising James, 4, and Nancy, 2, in a quaint government-owned park — Redbank – developed in 1942 to accommodate the influx of shipyard workers to Portland, cited the Maine Sunday Telegram.
    Sawyer had began cooking a steak for supper when next-door neighbor Rita Robertson, 24, came over to visit. Robertson’s daughter Ann-Marie or better known as “Penny” was playing nearby and her 10-month-old brother George Jr. was at home.
    In the next room, Little was with her children.
    “Hazel was a shipyard worker but had stayed home that day because her little boy was sick,” said Sawyer. “I can’t remember if she took him to the doctor or she was calling the doctor.”
    Then, Sawyer heard a noise, but didn’t pay much attention because planes went over the trailer park daily. In the chaos, no one had time to prepare or act.
    Around 4:30 p.m., Russell radioed Portland’s tower for landing instructions. Newspaper accounts reported that the tower told Russell to climb to 1,500 feet. The army bomber was approaching the tarmac surprisingly low.
    As Russell attempted to adjust, the plane vanished into a fog bank, hanging like a curtain between the airport and trailer park. Just seconds later, the family heard the crash, as the plane’s motors stopped and flames shot into the air.
    On the other side of the veil, serenity was shattered, as the bomber’s wing lodged into the ground and the plane cartwheeled out of control into Redbank Trailer Park, slamming into 16 trailers and bursting into flames.
    With no warning, the plane went end-over-end, bumping an embankment, bouncing toward Little’s trailer — directly in its path — according to a newspaper report.
    “I came to as Rita was screeching and hollering for her baby,” said Sawyer who found herself laying under the trailer floor after the hinges attached to the floor gave way. “I saw the little boy (Jimmy) standing on the couch so I grabbed him. The trailer was empty.”
    Sawyer didn’t see Little, but noticed her daughter on the steps crying with her clothes afire.
    “I grabbed her and tore her dress off,” she said. “We walked across a gully. Most of the ambulances were already gone.”
    As reminiscent of war time, tangled wreckage of metal and debris were dispersed, as 16 of the 100 trailers had been destroyed by fire and explosion, while dozens were damaged by flying parts of the plane hurling as far as 100 yards.
    Nineteen people died that day. A military report stated the plane’s altitude was 20 feet and the ceiling 500 feet, with visibility of two miles in fog.
    Sawyer still bears the scars of that day on her arms. She sustained burns to her arms and face, as well as her legs. Everyone who had been with her at the trailer that day — Rita and her baby, Hazel, Jimmy and Nancy — all died.
    Another survivor, Robertson’s daughter, Penny had been outside when the plane crashed.
    “It was hard,” Sawyer said. “I thought a lot about it, but I couldn’t let it bother me.”
    Fifty years later, Ann Marie Altieri of Connecticut, a.k.a. Penny, questioned the whole incident hoping to put it to rest.
    “I talked to her,” said Sawyer. “She asked questions and I told her what happened. She said her father never told her anything.”
    It was unclear where George Robertson was on the day of the tragedy.
    “Penny said her father had burns,” Sawyer added.
    But, as people did in the past, terrible memories were surpressed in their minds and they moved on with their lives. You buried the memories because that was what you were supposed to do.
    “It’s like anything else,” said Sawyer “it happened and that’s it. We don’t have much to say about that.”
    Sawyer eventually went on to beautician school, working in the Smyrna and Island Falls area.
    “I never cared for it,” she said.
ImageTAKING A LOOK – Houlton Pioneer Times’ receptionist Wanda MacIlroy, left, looks at an old Maine Sunday Telegram story involving Vina Sawyer, right. Sawyer was 18 years old when a U.S. Army bomber crashed into Redbank Trailer Park in South Portland on July 11, 1944. Sawyer was injured in the explosion, while her employer and children died as a result of the accident. John Kierstead, an artist, has drawn plans for the memorial, but  needs $10,000 more to complete it. Donations can be sent to South Portland City Hall, South Portland, Maine 04106 or call 207-799-3812.
    Sawyer then graduated as a Certified Nurses Assistant (CNA) in 1980 and retired from Visiting Nurses of Aroostook. She married Lyle McGuire and raised three children, Bob, Chris and Cindy. After McGuire died, she married Basil Sawyer. She has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
    Sawyer said her children know the story of Redbank, as someone saved all the newspaper articles of the incident while she was hospitalized.
    After a few years, Sawyer visited the Redbank area again with her sister and brother-in-law. Nothing remains of the trailer park, just distant memories.
    The city of South Portland is beginning fund-raising efforts to raise a memorial to the victims of that horrific day. John Kierstead, an artist, has drawn plans for the memorial, but  needs $10,000 more to complete it. Donations can be sent to South Portland City Hall, South Portland, Maine 04106 or call 207-799-3812.
    “If they raise a memorial, I’ll go back,” said Sawyer.