Friday, 31 July 2015

The 1951 Plane Crash: Remembering Helen Fishbeck


They say that history repeats itself and the rather sombre topic of today's blog is a reminder of just that. Exactly ten years before Sabena Flight 548 crashed en route to Brussels, Belgium killing the entire U.S. figure skating team - almost to the month - another American skater's dreams were cut short in a horrific air tragedy.

Born January 28, 1930 in Detroit, Michigan to Lloyd and Bernice Fishbeck, Helen Lois Fishbeck was a talented junior skater who trained in Michigan in the winter and in New York at summer camps in Lake Placid. In March 1948, she was even a guest soloist at the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club and University Ice Skating Club's joint show "Melody On Ice". Incredibly, she had turned professional in her mid-teens, taking up coaching jobs in Detroit and Lake Placid before completing a stint coaching at Akron's Iceland in Ohio in the winter of 1950/1951.

Although Fishbeck loved passing on her knowledge to younger skaters, she still had a great drive and passion to perform and that winter auditioned for Ice Follies. She got the job and was set to join the tour rehearsals on Sunday, March 26, 1951 in Milwaukee in anticipation of a March 29 opening night, according to The Milwaukee Sentinel. On March 25, after teaching at Iceland in the morning she boarded a small pilot plane with a thirty six year old Akron detective named Clarence Kitchen who rented the plane from Akron Airways where he was a part-time flight instructor, twenty three year old student at Ohio State University James J. Longstreth and Ernest H. White, a twenty five year old flying student and Goodyear Aircraft Corporation employee. With a little help from her friends, Fishbeck had absolutely no intention of missing her first day of work with Ice Follies the next day.

Things didn't work out that way at all. The March 26, 1951 edition of the Toledo Blade explains that "a few minutes after the red cabin Stinson left Akron - and within a mile of clear skies over Cleveland - the craft got into trouble in a cloud bank. Residents near the Brooklyn Heights farm where it crashed said the plane spiraled down from the clouds, tried to level off, and tore through roadside treetops - some six inches thick. As the damaged craft roared along for another half-mile, the left wing broke away, the engine and propeller broke loose, and the fuselage, with its four occupants, ended up a twisted mass of metal that had to be torn apart by trucks and chains." Sadly, Helen and her three travelling companions were all killed.

After the crash, two administration safety officials from Cleveland began working with C.E. Stillwagon of Romolus, Michigan's Civil Aeronautics Board conducted a formal investigation of the crash and the victims were taken to the Cuyahoga County morgue, where Helen's parents had to identify her body. I couldn't even imagine how heartbreaking and painful that must have been. Her autopsy lists her cause of death as "multiple contused, compound comminuted fractures of 85% of all the bones in the body, lacerations of the thoracic and abdominal and pelvic viscers. Laceration and a isceration of the brain. Airplane accident." Not sugar coating anything, the twenty one year old skater would have probably suffered terribly.

We all read and watch the news to some extent. Earthquakes in Nepal, shootings in churches, "weapons of mass destruction", civil unrest, missing airplanes... It's hard to wrap your head around it all. Although the loss of a whole generation of U.S. figure skaters, coaches and officials ten years later would capture international headlines and threaten to decimate American skating's future, from that tragedy came a wonderful appreciation of the love of skating of those individuals who died in Brussels that day like Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughters. That said, I felt it was just so important that I share the story of another young skater whose dream of a bright future in figure skating was cut short in a very similar way. Helen, you are remembered.

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