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Solved and unsolved underwater mysteries around the Northwest

Over the past few years, KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest have shared several stories of underwater archaeologists and other sleuths who are working to solve a handful of Pacific Northwest mysteries dating as far back as the 17th century.

Here are the latest updates on three of those stories.

The Disappearance of Flight 293

KIRO Radio first covered Northwest Airlines Flight 293 more than four years ago.

Flight 293 was a four-engine, propeller-driven DC-7 that left JBLM – known as McChord Air Force Base in those days – the morning of June 3, 1963. It was a military charter of a civilian aircraft, and the destination was Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. It never arrived.

The plane, with 101 souls aboard – Army and Air Force personnel and family members, and the Northwest Airlines crew – crashed into the ocean near Annette Island in Southeast Alaska, where the water is 8,000 feet deep. Searchers found only a small amount of floating debris, and no clues as to why it crashed.

Multiple people who lost family and friends on Flight 293 have reached out to KIRO Radio since 2017 and shared stories of their loved ones.

Earlier this month, Connie Miller of Gresham, Ore., described how she lost her younger sister Jewel Smith, as well as Jewel’s two kids – her two-and-a-half year-old nephew and six-week old niece.

Miller said the tragedy changed her parents immediately.

“My mother and father left as a middle-aged couple up to take their daughter to put her on a plane with their grandchildren,” Miller said.

When they returned home, having learned of the plane’s disappearance, the couple were haggard and hunched over, and, Miller says, “walking up the sidewalk are two old people.”

“It just aged them instantly,” she said.

Miller is, understandably, emotional at times when she spoke about her sister, nephew, and niece. The pain of losing those three family members never really completely goes away, she says, but one thing did help.

“I had a lot of dreams,” Miller said. “I would dream over the years that they were found on some obscure island someplace, and the kids were teenagers. That was pretty much my thing through all those years.”

For Miller and others who have shared their stories about loved ones lost on the flight, it feels as if the military let down the survivors by not really commemorating the soldiers, airmen, and their families.

One of those family members is Greg Barrowman, who first shared the story of his brother, Private Bruce Barrowman, three years ago. Greg Barrowman launched a website and is hoping to create a public memorial. He’s asked the military to search for the plane, and they have turned him down multiple times.

Greg Barrowman, along with Susan Francis – who lost her 16-year old friend Jodi Whipkey in the crash – have taken part in phone calls with other Flight 293 families, sharing their experiences and, with help from KIRO Radio, creating an informal support group who have the tragedy in common.

Last year, KIRO Radio reached out on behalf of the group to representatives of the late Paul Allen – because one arm of his Vulcan organization has searched for and located a number of sunken military vessels – hoping to arrange a meeting between Vulcan’s maritime search experts, Barrowman, and the other Flight 293 families.

“We will not be able to participate in anything along these lines,” wrote Janet Greenlee of Vulcan in an email. “Apologies for the delay and I wish you all the best.”

Perhaps these multiple rejections are based on what a search for Flight 293 might cost.

Scott Williams is an archaeologist for WSDOT, but he’s also a volunteer researcher and diver with the Maritime Archaeological Society.

Earlier this week, Williams estimated that a search for Flight 293 – even when the location of where it hit is known – might cost tens of millions of dollars. And, Williams says, like the recent search for the Boeing 777 Malaysian airliner MH-370, it might not turn up anything.

“As those bits and pieces settle down through 8,000 feet of water, they move, they don’t sink straight down,” Williams said. “They’re going to hit currents. Some of them are going to kind of drift one way or the other. So it’s not like you’re going to have one crash site with an airplane sitting on the bottom. You’ve probably got a debris field of little pieces over a huge area.”

Williams is involved with another search for a lost plane in a much smaller area.

Missing World War II-era Navy Trainer

A two-seat World War II-era Navy trainer called an SNJ-5 left from the old Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington where Magnuson Park now stands. The plane, with two aviators aboard — 23-year old Ensign Gaston Mayes and 25-year old Lieutenant Benjamin Vreeland — took off on March 11, 1949, for a two-hour flight. It never returned.

Nora Mayes, the mother of Ensign Mayes, came out from Tennessee not long after the plane disappeared to pick up where Navy searchers had left off. Nora Mayes returned every summer for nearly two decades to continue the search, but the plane and the aviators were never located.

However, as early as the mid 1950s, a handful of witnesses and clues pointed to Black Lake in the Cascade foothills near Carnation as the ultimate resting place of the SNJ-5. Black Lake is on private property; the lake is small, about 600 feet by 1,700 feet, and is roughly 35 feet deep. It’s also very muddy.

Two local volunteers are continuing the search. One is a veteran and former pilot named Lee Corbin, who often assists KIRO Radio with local history story ideas and research, particularly related to aviation and military topics. The other is Shawn Murphy, who’s spent years researching lost ships and planes in the Northwest.

Murphy said the most recent search at Black Lake earlier this year sent divers down to examine three so-called “anomalies” or potential targets that a magnetometer – which is, essentially, a metal detector – had identified.

Murphy says the recent divers ran into the same issue that searchers did when Black Lake was first examined 60 years ago.

“The divers went out and tried to check the anomalies,” Murphy said. “One stuck his arm in [the mud] all the way up to his neck, about two and a half feet down, and still did not find solid surface – [the] bottom [of the lake]. The other [diver] took a rod and poked it down about almost four feet, and again, didn’t find any solid bottom.”

“The mud is much thicker than we even anticipated,” Murphy added.

The next step in the search of Black Lake is to bring in a ground-penetrating radar to determine if the SNJ-5 is buried in the mud at the bottom. Murphy and Corbin are hoping the Navy will support the effort to locate the plane and, if possible, remains of the two aviators. They’d like to bring closure to the surviving family members, and they’d both like to see a monument at Black Lake, too.

In an email late Tuesday, Murphy mentioned one more reason: to properly credit a sort of “all-star” underwater diving team from the 1950s and 1960s made up of local law enforcement officers.

“We truly believe the ‘Eastside Frogmen Rescue Unit #1’ found proof of the plane in Black Lake,” Murphy wrote. “But the Navy wasn’t satisfied.”

Corbin says that Scott Williams is drafting a report on the Black Lake search.

“It will be sent to several organizations and Naval departments,” Corbin wrote in an email. “The Navy’s History and Heritage Command has an underwater archaeology unit that has expressed interest, as has a private organization named Project Recover, dedicated to recovery of military remains at aircraft crash sites. I’m planning to send a copy … to Admiral Stephen Barnett, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Northwest region.”

Santo Cristo de Burgos: The Mystery of the Beeswax Ship

Scott Williams’ main project most recently was helping solve the mystery of the legendary “Beeswax Ship” near Manzanita on the Oregon Coast.

With some geologic sleuthing and brilliant archival work, a team identified the ship as a Spanish galleon called the Santo Cristo de Burgos. It was way off course in 1693 – en route from Manila to Acapulco – when it ran aground, perhaps in a storm, spilling its cargo of beeswax and other trade items from the Far East.

The mystery is solved, but the team is raising money for the next step, which is to purchase a magnetometer and use it to locate the actual wreck. Should they find the ship, Williams’ group has no plans to disturb the wreck or to recover artifacts. It’s more about putting a punctuation mark on the end of the project.

One thing that all these searches have in common is that they’re not about anyone getting rich.

“It’s not the treasure, it’s answering that historical mystery,” Williams said. “When did a ship wreck on the Oregon coast, and where did it come from? And why was it there?”

From Williams’ perspective, “we’re done, we don’t need to find it and recover tons of artifacts.”

As Williams describes them, the more recent losses — and the still calculable human cost – of the SNJ-5 and Flight 293 are different from the Beeswax Ship.

“For the crashed Navy plane in Black Lake, specifically, it’s two guys who are just really interested in trying to confirm if the plane is there so they can tell the surviving family members,” Williams said. “This is where the plane crashed. The bodies of the two pilots were certainly in the lake and just never found.”

“It’s kind of a closure thing for those families,” Williams added. “So I guess that would be the same thing for the crashed airliner.”

“If you’re a family member, people would like to have that closure,” Williams said.

Many of the Flight 293 family and friends have mentioned the lack of closure, but it’s easy to speculate that the same might have been true more than 300 years ago for the families of the men lost on the Santo Cristo de Burgos. Like those Flight 293 families, they never learned what happened to the ship, and never learned the ultimate fate of their loved ones. In each tragedy, families had no remains to lay to rest.

Based on fundraising and realities of the pandemic, Williams hopes to be back out to search the waters off Manzanita perhaps as early as next year, though it seems as if that might be an optimistic timetable. Murphy and Corbin hope to search Black Lake again just as soon as ground-penetrating radar can be secured. There are no plans to mount a search for Flight 293, though KIRO Radio continues to collect stories from family and friends of those who were lost.

If you or a relative lost a family member or friend aboard Flight 293, please reach out to Feliks Banel via his contact information below.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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