Phil Bradley, the only survivor of the crash of Piedmont Airline Flight 349 on Bucks Elbow Mountain on Halloween eve in 1959, returned to Crozet Oct. 31 to the memorial to crash victims he built at Mint Springs Valley Park in 1999, to observe the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. A crowd of about 125, some families of crash victims, others Crozet residents who took part in the removal of bodies, attended a memorial ceremony Bradley organized. Low clouds concealed the crash site on the mountainside above the gathering.
Tabor Presbyterian minister Jewell-Ann Parton gave the benediction and a Civil Air Patrol color guard made a solemn presentation of flags. CAP units had been involved in the search for Bradley’s plane.
Dr. Frank McCue, the well-known orthopedist at the University of Virginia who put Bradley’s hip back in his socket when, after two nights pinned on the mountain, he was finally discovered and rushed to the emergency room, described his memories of Bradley’s injuries. Immediately upon seeing Bradley arrive in the ER, McCue said, he and Dr. Charles Frankel put Bradley on the floor and with their combined might forced the hip in place.
“Phil Bradley was one of the most stoic, straight-thinking individuals I’ve ever met,” Dr. McCue said. “He has great common sense and was such a tremendous patient.”
White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek said Bradley “by destiny and determination survived to live a life of service.” Bradley was a labor union organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at the time of the crash (Bob Wood, the IAMAW’s southern territory representative attended the ceremony) and later became a labor dispute mediator for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Bradley said he has asked Mallek to help him get a sign placed on Interstate 64 that would direct travelers to the memorial.
Rucker Tibbs, owner of the New London airport near Lynchburg, also recalled the day the crash site was found. Tibbs, who flew over the memorial in 1999 when it was dedicated and dropped 26 white carnations and a single red one, said he was “in the first group to reach the accident. We were looking for people, not for a plane. All the neighbors here pointed at the mountain. We knew it was here but not where. A helicopter spotted it and circled the location. It was an awful sight. Phil was still strapped in his seat. He was thrown clear of the fusilage and that’s why he lived. The rest were crushed in the fusilage. I’m glad y’all weren’t there to see it.”
Brad Bradley, Phil’s son, then solemnly read the names of the victims. Phil Bradley wiped away tears as he listened to the roster.
Bradley invited anyone in the audience who wished to speak to come forward. “We don’t want anyone to leave with an unsaid speech,” he urged. But no one stepped forward.
Bradley then told the story of the flight, the apparition of Jesus Christ at the moment before the impact, and his ordeal on the mountain before he was found. [See the October 2009 issue for the complete account.] “What if I had had another seat to take,” he said. “I ponder this every day and I have no answer.” Bradley was in a single seat at the very back of the plane.
Bradley had made that flight before and knew what to expect. “I couldn’t understand why we didn’t land. It shouldn’t have taken so long to be down. Someone had told a joke and they were all laughing when we hit. I had the most beautiful vision of Jesus Christ. He looked at me just as I am looking at you. He said, ‘Be concerned not. I will be with you always.’ And I have never had a moment of fear since. If it hadn’t have been for the illumination of the mountain created by Christ I would not have known where I was.”
Bradley credited Sally James of Crozet with the thought that Christ had appeared to the victims too. “I think we can all agree,” Bradley said, “those people saw him too. He was there for them. He took them with him. I believe that.”
This was a consoling statement for the families present.
“I feel a spiritual attachment to all the lost ones that grows stronger as I get older. I would like to see a nice high tall cross erected at the site, if I live long enough.” The crash site is on private property.
Following the ceremony, Brice Allison with Hiking Upward, an organization that promotes hikes in Virginia and West Virginia, led a group of 26 hikers from the memorial to the location of the crash debris. The hike of 6.1 miles, roundtrip, took about four hours and Allison rated the climb a “5,” the toughest notch in the club’s difficulty rating. Some stretches are at a 40 percent grade. The group marked the route with yellow survey tape beginning at the MSVP kiosk and proceeding on the fire trail. For complete directions, visit hikingupward.com.