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First WNY airline disaster recalled Boyhood memory of '51 crash killing 26 near Salamanca

He came from out of nowhere in a rumpled suit, stumbling toward the farmhouse on Sawmill Run Road in the Bucktooth hills west of Salamanca.

"I can still see him crossing the front yard, staggering through the snow," John Bryant recalled. "My mother thought he was someone who had probably celebrated New Year's a little too early and drove his car into a ditch."

It was Dec. 31, 1951. The disheveled stranger approaching the Bryants' door that afternoon was leaving an accident behind, all right.

George Albert, a 30-year-old Miami, Fla., restaurant owner, had just slogged two miles through deep snow from the scene of Western New York's first commercial air crash, on a densely forested ridge north of the Allegany River between Salamanca and Little Valley in Cattaraugus County.

Albert's appearance along the remote byway near the Pennsylvania border followed a massive -- and futile -- search by land, air and sea launched after an unscheduled Continental Charters flight carrying 40 passengers and crew disappeared en route to Buffalo from Pittsburgh two nights earlier.

The twin-engine Curtiss C-46A, a converted military transport, broke into pieces after striking trees near the ridge line. Twenty-six people died on impact. Albert and 13 others survived.

The lucky ones huddled near wood fires to ward off the cold, waiting for rescuers who never came, until Albert finally set out for help.

This was Western New York's only fatal commercial airline accident before Continental Connections Flight 3047 went down Feb. 12 in Clarence Center, killing 50. Continental Charters, which flew out of Miami in the 1940s and 1950s, was not related to Continental Airlines or its Continental Connections commuter service, operated by Colgan Air.

After being ushered into Charles and Ruby Bryant's living room, Albert tried to telephone for help, "but he was kind of incoherent," said John Bryant, who at 15 was the second-youngest of five sons.

"My mother took the phone and told the operator, 'You'd better put this call through' " to authorities.

Two older Bryant sons, George and Rodney, dashed off to assist other survivors.

"Mom wouldn't let me go because I was too young," John Bryant recalled. "They went directly over the hill from our house as the crow flies. They were among the first on the scene."

His siblings "were very shocked" by the carnage they found on the ridge, he said.

"The plane was scattered all over."

Within an hour, "there was pandemonium all around our house," Bryant said.

Ambulances, police cruisers, military vehicles and cars occupied by curiosity-seekers jammed Sawmill Run Road.

"People were hollering, trying to get in on the action," he said.

Hampered by deep snow, rescuers enlisted a neighboring farmer's bulldozer to plow through to the crash site and as many sleds as they could muster to bring the dead and injured down from the ridge.

"I remember Rod saying that he helped carry out one of the stewardesses," Bryant said.

As the disappearance of the Continental Charters flight demonstrated, pinpointing the location of a downed airliner could be difficult in the 1950s, before modern radar and other sophisticated tracking devices were developed.

During the futile two-day search, dozens of airplanes and Coast Guard vessels swept a 16,000-square-mile area of Western New York, southern Ontario and Lakes Erie and Ontario, while a similar search was under way over northwestern Pennsylvania. The flyovers failed to turn up any sign of the missing flight and were suspended because of poor visibility just as George Albert emerged from the woods on Sawmill Run Road.

Investigating crashes was a far simpler and quicker process. The bodies of victims of the Cattaraugus County incident were recovered and claimed within two days. Just two of the dead were area residents: Marine Cpl. Richard J. Martin, 22, of Buffalo, and Audrey Malcolm, 24, of Lockport.

Most of those who survived, or did not, were from Miami, where the charter flight originated, or Pittsburgh, where it stopped on the way to Buffalo. Albert escaped with shoulder and chest bruises and returned to Miami on Jan. 2.

The Civil Aeronautics Board, predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration, stood by its initial conclusion that poor weather led to the crash. Capt. Victor Harris was flying beneath a 2,000-foot cloud ceiling, using visual rules, when the aircraft slammed into the ridge at about 10:25 p.m. Dec. 29, the board determined.

John Bryant, 72, a retired state forest ranger, believes the CAB got it right.

"We went up to the site afterward," he remembered. "The elevation is probably around 2,400 feet. If the pilot had been flying 100 feet higher, he would have made it.

"And if the plane hit smaller trees, it might have ended up fairly intact. But they were big trees. One wing broke off, and then the fuselage flipped around, and the tail broke off."

Cattaraugus County Correspondent Donna Snyder contributed to this report.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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