Burien hero dies before receiving medal

Nov 24, 2023, 2:16 PM | Updated: 5:26 pm

Image: From left, crash survivor Gene Casey shakes hands with then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott and reco...

From left, crash survivor Gene Casey shakes hands with then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott and recovering from the 1955 crash in a Burien, Washington, hospital. Casey died Nov. 17, 2023 on the 68th anniversary of the deadly airliner disaster. (Images courtesy of Gene Casey)

(Images courtesy of Gene Casey)

The sad news arrived Thursday afternoon, while Americans everywhere were preparing to give thanks. It came via email from Sharon Casey, wife of Gene Casey, who shared that her husband had passed away last week in Florida at the age of 87.

KIRO Newsradio listeners might remember Gene Casey was last featured on Seattle’s Morning News in September.

Casey was retired and living in Florida, but on Nov. 17, 1955, he was a 19-year old U.S. Army Private returning from duty in Korea. His troop ship docked in Seattle on a snowy morning. That night, he boarded an old DC-4 airliner at Boeing Field for a cross-country trip back to his hometown of Chicago.

Moments after takeoff, the four-engine propeller plane went down in the Boulevard Park neighborhood behind a row of houses and broke apart. The DC-4 was full of fuel, and there was a big explosion, and many of the surviving passengers were badly burned. Residents at the crash site opened their homes to the soldiers in the cold and snowy night, turning suburban living rooms into makeshift hospital wards.

Gene Casey was knocked unconscious and was badly injured in the crash. He was burned in multiple places, and had an injured clavicle and a fractured skull. After regaining consciousness and unbuckling from his seat, he made his way out of the wreckage. As badly injured as he was, Casey still stopped and helped another injured passenger stand up and get out of the burning fuselage.

More from Feliks Banel: Lost wreck from long-ago tragedy identified deep in Elliott Bay

The U.S. Army promised Private Casey a medal for helping that other passenger, but the paperwork got lost and he was never officially recognized for his actions – though other soldiers were awarded medals not long after the crash.

In June of this year, KIRO Newsradio began pestering people in Florida about Gene Casey and calling attention to his unrecognized bravery. Staffers in the office of Gene’s member of Congress, Rep. C. Scott Franklin, R-Fla., took the request seriously and tried their best to help. They met with Gene to hear his story, they searched for records of what had happened, and they pestered the Defense Department to get Gene presented with the Soldier’s Medal. They didn’t have much luck.

In September, for that last story about Gene, KIRO Newsradio asked for help to identify the passenger he saved so that the unidentified person – a Black man who had suffered burns on his buttocks (or, because so many years have passed, any of the man’s surviving relatives) – might confirm Gene’s role in the long-ago rescue.

The MyNorthwest story was shared far and wide via social media, but help came from much closer to home; it’s pretty certain that local history researcher (and good friend of Seattle’s Morning News) Lee Corbin got it right when he identified U.S. Army Sergeant Hiram Thomas of Frankfort, Ohio as the man Gene Casey rescued.

In October, KIRO Newsradio identified living descendants of the late Mr. Thomas and sent multiple Facebook messages, left multiple phone messages, and even sent a hardcopy letter via U.S. Mail. Still, no one ever responded. In the meantime, KIRO Newsradio had reached out to Rep. Franklin’s office as recently as last Wednesday to see if there was any update on efforts to recognize Casey.

In her email on Thanksgiving, Sharon Casey wrote:

“I wanted to let you now that Gene passed away on November 17th, ironically 68 years to the day of the airplane crash. I am so grateful for you for reaching out to Gene and remembering his sacrifice and bringing it to the public.  He so appreciated you and your friendship as well. Although I am completely heartbroken, I will cherish 33 years of wonderful memories. He was always disappointed in not receiving the soldiers medal that he so deserved, but will always be my hero.”

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What I’ll always remember about Gene Casey was the fortitude and resilience he demonstrated by surviving the 1955 crash, and his unselfish willingness to help a fellow injured passenger get out of the wreckage.

But what I’ll cherish most is his sense of humor.

During our very first conversation back in 2015, he told me how a newspaper reporter had arranged for Gene to call his parents from his hospital bed in Burien, just hours after the crash.

“I said ‘Hi, mom,’ and she says, ‘What did you do now?'” Casey told KIRO Newsradio, recalling earlier conversations with his parents when his mother had had good reason to leap to similar conclusions.

“I was always in trouble,” Casey said, laughing. “I think she thought I was flying the damn thing.”

Thank you to Lee Corbin for his typically brilliant research, and to anyone who shared the MyNorthwest story in September to help try and identify the man Gene Casey rescued. Also, special thanks to all of the families in that neighborhood who opened their homes to injured soldiers and who also never received any formal recognition for going above and beyond.

And on this holiday weekend, I can’t think of any better way to give thanks than by remembering and commemorating those families who responded on that icy morning 68 years ago, and by doing the same for Gene Casey – who passed away exactly 68 years to the day later.

It’s unclear if Rep. Franklin’s office will continue to seek a Soldier’s Medal for Gene Casey to be awarded posthumously; officials could not be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.

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Burien hero dies before receiving medal