“HOLD ON TO THE PLANE---WE’RE COMING!”
Kansas City, Sunday, August 8, 1943 --The Kansas City Star
When Two Heroic Women, a Helpless Invalid and Her White-Haired Mother Who Could Not Row, Rescued Two Fliers Whose Craft Had Plunged Into a Nebraska Lake.
By Margaret Hamilton (A Member of the Star’s Staff)
SOUTH BEND, NEB., Aug. 7, 1943---There was a note of desperation in the roar of the small crimson airplane hurtling into the drowsy quiet of sunset at the almost deserted Lake Park, near this hamlet. The slanting sun rays flashed on the brightly-colored craft as it skimmed the treetops in an awkward turn at the south side of the 1 ½-mile lake, headed outward again, ripped two power cables loose and plunged nose downward into eighty feet of water some fifty feet from the north shore.
Almost before the giant splash fell back into the lake, choking cries for help here heard from the two fliers struggling in the churning water near the still visible wing and tail tip. One man could swim just enough to keep up in calm water. The other couldn’t swim at all.
Three hundred yards away, diagonally across the lake, were two women, the only persons who could possibly effect a rescue. Mrs. Bertha Fitch, 65 years old, rushed from the small lakeshore cabin where she had been painting a table. She had heard the ominous roar of the plane overhead, followed by the sputtering when it lunged through the power cables and the crash, seconds later. But most alarming were the cries of her invalid daughter, Miss Ahlene Fitch, 31 years old, whom she had left shortly before laying helpless on her bed in the trailer-cottage a few feet away.
“We Must Help Them.”
Still carrying the paint brush, the white-haired woman halted just outside the screen door, horrified to note that her daughter was standing unsteadily a few feet from the trailer door. She hurried to support her, only to have the young woman plead: “Get me to the boat—we must help them.”
Today the white-haired mother could recall no other words as the tall, thin daughter clung to her and they moved slowly down the sand bank to the water’s edge and their clumsy flat-bottomed rowboat with its prow well upon the beach. She did remember she was barefoot and that when they stopped momentarily to rest, the daughter called out across the lake. “Hold onto the plane—we’re coming!”
Nor does she remember how she got into the boat the young woman who, due to a spinal condition, suffers excruciating pain at any abrupt movement and is unable to sit erect.
Mother Afraid of the Water.
She could give no word of explanation today when the daughter told how the mother strained to shove the heavy boat into the water, gave it another boost and managed somehow to get in. For Mrs. Fitch cannot swim, is fearful of the water and never had known a moment’s peace on the few occasions she had submitted to brief and always terrifying boat rides.
As for turning the boat and heading it outward, both mother and daughter describe as “a nightmare” the interval when the younger woman, flat on her back in the boat, directed the mother how to row and steer, while the cries of the men increased in desperation.
Lying with her head toward the boat’s prow, Miss Fitch twisted until she could see the two men clinging to the bit of red still above water. She turned to direct her mother again, noted the men suddenly had ceased their calls, and by the time she could get the scene within range of her eyes again, the plane was gone. Flailing arms and splashes indicated the silent struggle of the two fliers resisting the sucking whirlpool where their craft had been.
“For God’s sake hurry. . . he can’t swim . . . I can’t hold out much longer!” the women heard one man call. Only gasps and choking sounds came from the other.
With about 200 yards of the course marked by a zigzag wake behind them, and 100 yards still to go to reach the floundering men, Miss Fitch recalled the almost unbearable tension.
“That is the part that really almost got me down,” she said today, “and it still haunts me. I kept calling to them that we were coming and coaxing and pleading with them just to hold out a few seconds more.
“The one man who could swim a little, we learned later, was trying to support the other man as best he could. And the man who couldn’t swim kept screaming “For God’s sake hurry! Oh, for God’s sake, hurry faster! Then, ‘Oh, God, we can’t hold out—we can’t hold out!—things like that.
Urged Men Not to Give Up.
“Mother was doing the best she could and as fast as she could. But when I’d tell her to pull a little harder on this side or that to straighten the boat, she’d pull on the wrong side or too hard on the right side in her excitement. With the men screaming to hurry, it was hard for her to keep hold of herself and get the boat back on the course again.”
Mrs. Fitch recalled then how her daughter’s instructions to her had been broken by alternate pleadings called out to the men, attempting to reassure them and urge them not to give up.
“When we got almost to them,” Miss Fitch resumed, “the one who couldn’t swim seemed to be choking the one who was trying to hold him up. They went under water and by the time we got there, only the one was in sight and his head disappeared again. When I saw his head come up, I managed to move my left leg out over the boat side. Mother screamed then because she believed he would pull me in, but I was holding to the backrest. I was able to move my leg in and he grabbed the side of the boat. Then he choked out something about being able to hold on, but to get his friend.
“Right by the side of the boat I saw something about a foot under the water and it seemed to be sinking. Then I could see dimly it was the back of the shirt of the second man. I reached over and into the water and got hold of his shirt. I pulled him up and go hold of his hair. Somehow I wriggled over on my stomach and got my arm under his neck and held his face out of the water—I’m left-handed—and I had to hold him so high he was just about straight up and down in the water. Then I told mother to row to the bank. It was about fifty feet away.”
While the daughter clung to the unconscious man, she called out for help. But there was only the echo of the calls, the splash of the oars hitting the water irregularly, the faint burr of machinery more than a mile down the lake at the gravel works, and the gasping of the man clinging to the boat side. The doors and windows of rustic cabins and cottages set in the lush greenery along the north shore were closed and dark. There were no swimmers, no loungers, no boats, not motor cars chugging the narrow roads behind the camps.
Rescued Man in Collapse.
“I remember I kept saying something about ‘This man’s go to have some first aid right away!” Miss Fitch recalled. “I kept telling poor mother we had to get him to the shore quick. And all the time she was trying to hurry and with back turned, her oars kept hitting the men hanging at the side of the boat.
“Together mother and I got the helpless man to shore and dragged him just barely out of the water on the sand. The other man had stumbled ashore. He tried once to help us with his friend but wasn’t able. He was at the point of collapse and almost out of his head. He slumped down with his face in his hands.”
The north shore of the artificial lake is estimated at an 80-foot depth. So the women, who are familiar with the lake, and understand why numerous signs warn of the deep water in some places, were unable to take advantage of the help water would have given on a gentle sloping beach. They had to move close to the shoreline and drag the unconscious man out of the water by their joint tugging.
“Then I told mother to run down the shore until she found a cabin with someone in it,” Miss Fitch continued. “Over the weekend there had been vacationers in several cabins and it seemed likely we’d find help that way quicker that way so I told mother not to try to row again. She was in such a high excited and nervous state I was afraid for her to go out on the lake and try to oar back across without me.
“She went up the bank and I could hear her voice getting fainter as she went down the road trying to find help. I asked the other man if he could give artificial respiration. He shook his head and mumbled something about not being able to do anything for a few seconds, anyway. That I realized he was about all in.”
Slight Knowledge of Resuscitation.
Last summer Miss Betty Clements, 24-year-old physical education teacher in the public schools of Hastings, Neb., was at Lake Pa where her family had spent most of the summer for fifteen years. When some children asked Miss Clements how to take care of a person who had been rescued from drowning, the young teacher showed them the Red Cross method of giving artificial respiration, and Ahlene Fitch, laying near by in the sun, had watched.
Miss Clements, daughter of Guy Clements, president of the American Exchange bank in the Fitches’ hometown of Elmwood, about twenty miles east of Lincoln, since then joined the WAFs.
“I remembered Betty saying the first few minutes—even seconds counted,” Miss Fitch said today. I felt I had to do something. I had his head turned on his arm. I made sure he hadn’t swallowed his tongue. Then I started in. I didn’t now how much pressure was needed but I pressed as hard as the Lord would let me. I tried to count to keep my rhythm. Also, I remembered Betty saying to be sure and let up fast so air would pop into the lungs.
“It seemed hours and Mother didn’t get back. No one came. I kept telling myself people must be somewhere on the grounds, and when I was so nearly dead I thought I couldn’t keep working. I felt to quit before someone else took over would be perhaps to let a man die.” Then Miss Fitch again asked the other flier if he could relieve hr at least temporarily. She called him to watch her, then attempted to show him how to slide into the pressure rhythm so she could move away and he could take over without interruption. “Poor fellow, he was exhausted and frantic,” she said. “He would just reach over and put all his weight anywhere on the unconscious man—even his neck. I had to keep shoving him off with my elbow and I’d say ‘No, not that way—don’t do that. That’s not right—you can’t help me that way!’ But he was so wildly desperate to shove, force life back into his friend and he kept saying, ‘My God, he can’t be dead! I kept him up almost until you go there—he can’t be dead!’”
Screamed Until Aid Came.
Realizing she would have to go on alone until help arrived, Miss Fitch decided to combine screaming with resuscitation, substituting a scream for a 2-count interval. "And how I did scream!" she emphasized today, lying on a cot in front of the cabin where Mrs. Fitch had resumed her work of painting the table. "I bet never in all his days will that one man hear any female scream with such piercing, blood-curdling shrieks. I wasn't afraid--I was desperate.
"In about ten minutes, I guess it was, folks started to come. Some had heard me and mother had called to others arriving across the lake after she found every cabin empty. Others took over the respiration work. The Ashland fire department squad got there about an hour later with their inhalator. Then Dr. O. E. Liston arrived from Elmwood. He gave the man a hypo, but soon after that pronounced him dead. Somebody took the other flier away for treatment for cuts on his head and arms. I never saw him again.”
It was 9:45 o’clock when the crowd broke up and someone recalled the young woman they had placed in the boat after they took over her futile task. They rowed her and her mother back across the lake to the cabin and got candles to take the place of the lights put out by the snapping of the power
“By that time I was pretty tired and upset, “ Miss Fitch recalled. “I couldn’t eat any supper. After I got to bed I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t so bad of physically, but I just kept rowing across the lake, counting and pressing on the man’s lungs—doing all the same things over and over and wondering why the man had died.”
MANY WHO HEARD OF THEIR BRAVERY BELIEVE THY SHOULD HAVE A MEDAL OR CITATION. . . . MRS. BERTHA FITCH (LEFT) AND HER DAUGHTER, AHLENE FITCH, WHO RISKED THEIR LIVES TO SAVE ANOTHER—
Victim Was Plane’s Pilot
The next day, July 15, CAA authorities arrived from Omaha to conduct an investigation of the fatal crash of the red Taylorcraft plane owned and piloted by John Schwindt, jr., 37 years old, who was killed. The injured man who escaped death was Morton Fitzpatrick, 30 years old, Schwindt’s instructor at the White and Jensen flying school at Lincoln. Persons who reached the lakeshore before Fitzpatrick left that night of the crash said he had told them he believed the plane went into a spin and before he could get control of it, hit the wires and plummeted into the lake.
When a crew arrived at the lake to raise the plane for examination in connection with the official investigation, Miss Fitch was able to direct them to the spot where it sank. One of the men lifted her and carried her to the cushioned rescue boat which, incidentally had been left at the cabin of the boatless Fitches three days before by the Clements family who had visited their own cottage down the lake for the week end.
She had identified by landmarks the approximate place where the plane disappeared, and William Stoner, owner of the resort, estimated the depth of the water there at eighty feet. The crane was lined up on the band above and the grappling began. After the hooks sank and the drag began there was a quiver and hitch.
“I was looking right at that spot where I knew that plane sank. The water sort of boiled up and some thing white and flat popped out in the air and spanked back on the water and floated. It was the air filled cushion from the plane cabin seat and might have saved the men who drowned. Right after that they go the plane.”
Another Witness to Accident
Aside from the Fitches, the only other witness to the planes fall apparently was Mrs. Oscar Dill whose rambling white farm home is set in a large lawn on a hill. She walked to the front gate this evening and pointed out the sections of lake glimmering amid the trees far down the corn-planted slopes. It was evident how she could see from a mile away the downward plunge of the plane.
“I was out here at the front of the yard when I saw it shooting right down to the lake and disappear behind the trees,” she said. “It didn’t come up again and the trees hid the crash.
“My husband and daughter-in-law, Mrs. Bernard Dill, were out getting a load of hogs ready to go to Omaha that night. I ran back and called them and we got in the car with my two little grandchildren, and went to the lake. But by the time we got there the plane had sunk and it was some time before we found the Fitch girl down there on the bank under the ledge—you can’t see from the road. My daughter-in-law showed the men how to do that life saving on the man and let the poor Fitch girl rest.”
Young Mrs. Bernard Dill, who lives in an adjacent house on the same farm, insisted she did neither. “It was the two “Fitch women who did it all, “ she said. It was with reluctance the brown-eyed young mother admitted she had taken over from Miss Fitch.
Morton Fitzpatrick, the instructor who survived the crash, was said to have had five years’ flying experience and to have instructed Schwindt about two months. Before moving to Lincoln last March 1 to before a flying instructor, Fitzpatrick was a salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine company at 540 Minnesota avenue, Kansas City, Kansas. His home was at 4412 Worhall road. His hobby was flying and he spent much of his leisure time in a plane completing his requisite hours for an instructor rating.
Formerly Lived in Kansas City.
Ahlene Fitch still was a student at the Municipal university at Omaha when her work was interrupted by what later was believe to be the result of an old injury to her spine. Only the last three years, however, has she been almost completely disabled.
Following the death of her father, Fourth J. Fitch, a colonization agent at Elmwood for many years, Ahlene and her mother moved to Kansas City about four years ago to be with another daughter, Ruth Fitch, who still is employed as a senior stenographer in the Public Roads administration in the United States courthouse in Kansas City. For two years the family lived at 3615 Forest avenue. A Kansas City physician advised swimming for Ahlene, and both summer the mother and daughter lived at Winnwood lake. There Mrs. Fitch attempted to learn to handle a boat as an aid to her daughter. But her fear and lack of skill with the oars cut short any further practice until she took the dramatic trip in the old scow recently. Two years ago Mrs. Fitch and Ahlense returned to Elmwood. Ruth Fitch lives at 3434 the Paseo, Kansas City.
Dr. Liston, the physician called to the accident scene, pausing a moment in the busy life he leads at Elmwood as the only physician left between there and Lincoln, twenty-miles west, smiled when asked about Miss Fitch. “I’ve know her since she was about so high,” he said, holding his hand a little above his knee. How as it possible for Miss Fitch to do what she had in her helpless condition? He looked off in the distance thoughtfully, then said: “Ahlene Fitch definitely is disabled.” (end of story)
NO RUSH THIS TIME—In this peaceful scene the calm faces of Mrs. Bertha Fitch (at the oars) and her daughter, Miss Ahlene Fitch, reflect the difference in this boat trip and the zigzag course when Mrs. Fitch was frantically struggling with the oars as the two sought to rescue two fliers whose plane had dived into the lake. Here the Fitches’ have halted the old scow directly over the 80-foot depths to show a photographer for The Star where the plane sank and left its two occupants struggling for their lives. Both were rescued by the women, but only one lived. Across the lake can be seen the white trailer-cottage and a few feet to the right, the small brown cabin occupied by the Fitches. At the left of the trailer is the tall pole which supported the power cables ripped away by the plunging plane while Miss Fitch lay near a window in the trailer—(Kansas City Star Photograph).
While the daughter clung to the unconscious man, she called out for help. But there was only the echo of the calls, the splash of the oars hitting the water irregularly and the gasph of the man clinging to the boat side.