Mount Charleston Plane Crash Mystery

George Knapp's Street Talk
Led by Award-winning investigative reporter George Knapp, the Eyewitness News I-TEAM is the top television investigative unit in southern Nevada. Political expert Jon Ralston provides insight into local and state government, and former Mayor Jan Jones adds an insider's viewer of City Hall. I-TEAM photographer Eric Sorenson rounds out this first-class investigative unit.


Hikers who've been to the top of Mount Charleston know that some wreckage can still be seen up there, but wreckage from what? The full story of what happened on that tragic day 45 years ago has been shrouded in secrecy -- as it turns out, for good reasons. Now, the story is going to be told, and those who lost their lives that day will receive some long-overdue recognition.

More than 45 years ago, armed military forces poured into Mount Charleston and sealed the mountain off to the outside world. It was soon determined that something had crashed atop the mountain, but the true story of that event was kept secret for more than four decades. Now, the full truth is coming out because of a local Boy Scout leader.

During the darkest days of the Cold War, an unnamed airline ferried classified workers from the aircraft brain trusts in Southern California to a brand new, ultra-secret facility in the Nevada desert, a facility then known simply as Watertown. Today, we call it Area 51. The CIA and its contractors at Lockheed for the flight-testing of a vital intelligence tool, the U-2 spy plane, also known as the Dragon Lady, chose the Groom Lake location. A lot was riding on its fragile frame.

Garfield Thomas, vice president of Lockheed-Martin said: "There was great concern the Russians were building up a large bomber fleet and ICBMS. So they went looking for something that could penetrate Russia and observe what was happening there."

Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works Division created the U-2 in a matter of months, rolled it out onto Groom Lake, and started test flights. It was vital that no one else in the world knew the high-flying plane even existed.

But the secret was nearly spilled Nov. 17, 1955. Residents of Southern Nevada heard that something had crashed atop Mount Charleston. The mountain itself was sealed off. Military forces wouldn't allow anyone up, nor would they answer questions. Locals speculated the plane was bound for the atomic test site. Straight answers were hard to come by.

Insurance executive Steve Ririe has hiked to the crash site and often wondered what the full story was, because while it was clear a plane had crashed and that people had died, no explanation was ever released, until now. Ririe and his Boy Scout troop decided they would create a small monument to the victims of the crash. To do that, they had to learn the names. That meant dealing with the Air Force, the CIA and a whole lot of secrets. Fortunately, the CIA declassified much of its U-2 file in 1998, including the records of the crash, and it took awhile but Ririe got it.

Included are the names of the 14 people who died. There were five CIA employees, a couple of Lockheed engineers and the crew. Autopsies show they died instantly when they crashed just below the peak. It was the first day the route over Charleston had been used, chosen because it could cut 10 minutes off the flight to Groom. The weather that day was bad; radio contact was poor; and the pilot made a mistake. U-2 veteran Bob Murphy was supposed to be on board but was late for the flight.

Murphy, who at the time was a U-2 test supervisor, said: "Anyone who knows me, anyone in my family, I'm never late. I missed three days work in 34 years. When this plane hit that mountain, it stunned me. Why wasn't I on that airplane?"

The crash was a setback for the U-2 program but could have been worse. The daily flight usually carried three times as many passengers. While the mountain remained sealed off, rescue teams -- not only to locate bodies, but also to secure secret documents -- made valiant efforts and equipment scattered at the site.

Ririe's plans for a memorial will recognize not only those who died and the efforts of rescuers, but also the thousands of other nameless workers who helped win the Cold War.

One other person with an interest in the tragedy is Brian Kriemendal. His father was on the plane. Amazingly, Brian grew up to be a Lockheed engineer too, and has just learned the full story of the crash. Kriemendall said: "On behalf of my mom and family, great gratitude for those putting the plaque up there for all the people who made the ultimate sacrifice."

Ririe's plans for a modest little plaque have expanded greatly, in large part because of interest from the CIA, Lockheed and the Air Force. He has secured a promise from the Forest Service of some space in its planned visitors center for a memorial, so now the fundraising effort begins.

If you would like to be a part of this effort to honor the men and women who helped win the Cold War and would like to find out where you can send donations, call Ririe at 365-0388.

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