It was the 9/11 disaster that haunted Charleston long before the Twin Towers came down.
Thirty-five years ago this morning, 82 people -- including 38 from Charleston -- crashed on Eastern Airlines Flight 212, two miles short of the Charlotte runway.
The accident will forever be part of Charleston's history, if only for the randomness of the 72 lives that were lost: An admiral who'd just been promoted; a former spokesman for the governor who'd switched jobs to work in Charleston TV; business leaders with prominent Charleston names; three department heads from the precursor of The Post and Courier; the father and two brothers of now-comedian Stephen Colbert.
The fact that 10 people survived was considered a miracle. Approaching Charlotte through fog, the twin-jet DC-9 crashed into a muddy cornfield, skidded for hundreds of feet and came to rest in a line of trees. The resulting fireball sent black smoke billowing skyward. It would be North Carolina's second-worst air disaster, behind the 82 lives lost in a mid-air collision seven years earlier over Hendersonville.
For the survivors and the families of the victims, Sept. 11 signifies something much different than it does for the rest of America.
"Fortunate," survivor and former Domino Sugar executive Charles Weaver of Summerville said during an interview this week.
After the aircraft stopped moving, Weaver found himself upside down and disoriented, looking at the ground below him. He was able to crawl toward safety from his assigned seat at the back of the aircraft. "I was sitting in the right place at the right time," said Weaver, who is celebrating 57 years of marriage this year.
Other victims of the crash included U.S. Navy personnel stationed in Charleston, and a number of students who were making their way to prep schools in the Northeast. The loss of life grew even more significant considering Charleston's smaller population in 1974 of nearly 67,000, about one-third less than it is now.
Weaver plans no special remembrance today. Neither does the Charleston County Aviation Authority, which runs the airport where the flight originated.
Flight 212 left Charleston at 7 a.m. traveling almost due north to Charlotte's Douglas Municipal Airport and a brief stop ahead of the plane's ultimate goal, Chicago. It was a Wednesday and many Charleston business professionals were on board for the one-hour flight, as opposed to several hours by car.
Cockpit chatter showed the crew seemed at ease, discussing school desegregation, politics and the increasing price of gasoline. Survivors later recalled how quickly things turned bad. As the plane's runway approach lined up, some passengers reported seeing treetops going past at window level. Others said cars below began diverting out of the airplane's path.
"Now, all we've got to do is find the airport," veteran pilot J.E. Reeves said of the fog outside, moments before the plane hit. Testimony later indicated the first officer flying the plane had no idea they'd fallen below 1,000 feet.
Once the accident occurred, word spread quickly on local radio, TV and in the afternoon editions of The (Charleston) Evening Post that 38 people with ties to Charleston had been on board.
Frank Ford III, now a local investment advisor, was 22 when he learned his father, Frank Ford Jr., president of Ford's Ready-Mix Concrete Co., was on Flight 212 and wasn't among the survivors.
"It affected everyone in the city because everybody knew so many of the people who were on the plane," Ford said this week.
Going to multiple funerals in the crash's aftermath was a common event for many families, he added. "September 11 is a sad day for us and it has been for 35 years."
One of the hardest-hit families was the Colberts. Dr. James W. Colbert, vice president for academic affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina, was on board traveling with two of his sons, Peter and Paul, to prep school in Connecticut. All three died. His wife and nine other children stayed home.
Stephen Colbert, who was 10 at the time of the accident and would grow up to become a popular TV political comedian, rarely discusses the tragedy and, through a family member, declined to be interviewed. But in May he told graduates of MUSC that losing a role model so young meant his father's godlike image was "trapped in amber."
A partial list of others who died in the crash included Rear Adm. Charles W. Cummings, who died less than a week after his appointment as commandant of the Sixth Naval District; Wayne Seal, news director at WCIV-TV and the former press secretary to Gov. Robert McNair; Charleston newspaper executives Lewis Weston, production manager; Charles McDonald, circulation manager; and Jack Sanders, mail room supervisor. They were headed to a meeting with another newspaper in Charleston, W.Va.
Also lost were John Merriman, news editor for Walter Cronkite on CBS' Evening News; Harold Newton; vice president of Greenback Stamp Co. in Charleston; and Martin McCarter, manager of horticulture at the Lipton research farm in Charleston.
The cause of the crash would later be ruled pilot error. Multiple legal claims up to $21.5 million would follow.
The crash also prompted various safety precautions to be added to other U.S. flights. The Federal Aviation Administration reversed policy and made terrain-proximity warning systems mandatory on schedule airlines. Some believe if the device had been present on Flight 212, the crash could have been avoided.
Eastern Airlines also amended its pilot procedures for landing, requiring the use of an aircraft radio altimeter on non-precision approaches and introducing a formal cockpit briefing ahead of landing.
Today's anniversary won't draw more than a few moments' pause from some of those affected by the tragedy, while others said they think about their losses often, including any time a plane passes overhead.
One woman who lost her teenage son on Flight 212 said she found the strength to go on because there were other children that needed love, guidance, security and a future.
"You kind of just had to keep going," said Martha Thornhill, whose 14-year-old son, Ned, was on the plane. But at home, she and her husband had another son and daughter to raise and live life after the crash.
"You don't stop," Thornhill said.
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