The Mystery of NWA Flight 2501

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. (WZZM) – It's been nearly two months since Malaysia Flight 370 mysteriously disappeared. The largest multinational search-and-rescue in history was launched. Yet, to this day, there has been no confirmation of any flight debris found and no crash site has been determined. 239 lives are believed to be lost.

A similar scenario happened along the coast of South Haven, Michigan. 64 years ago, Northwest Orient Flight 2501, bound from New York to Minneapolis, encountered severe weather and crashed into Lake Michigan.

The wreckage has never been found.

For the past decade, a group of people has been determined to find Flight 2501, while at the same time doing everything they can to make sure this tragedy is never forgotten.

In May 2012, WZZM was invited to join a day-long expedition as the crew from the "National Underwater and Marine Agency" scanned the lake bottom for Flight 2501. The search is in its 11th year and is now being headed-up by Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, which is based out of Holland.

While the search continues this spring, a link to the past is being created. A wing of the Michigan Maritime Museumin South Haven is being dedicated to Flight 2501, with a special piece of art to be unveiled that will hopefully bring some closure to the living relatives of the victims who have waited over six decades for some answers as to what happened to this ill-fated flight.

Two new exhibits will be opening this weekend at the Michigan Maritime Museum. "Mysteries Beneath the Waves", which will focus on shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, and "Fatal Crossing: The Disappearance of NWA Flight 2501."

"There were 55 passengers and 3 crew members aboard Flight 2501," said Valerie van Heest, president of Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, curator of the Fatal Crossing museum exhibit, and author of the book entitled, Fatal Crossing: The Mysterious Disappearance of NWA Flight 2501 and the Quest for Answers. "There was a storm brewing over the Great Lakes region."

On June 23, 1950 NWA Flight 2501 was leaving La Guardia Airport in New York. It was scheduled to land in Minneapolis before heading to Seattle, which was the flight-plan's final destination.

As the plane flew over the shoreline of Benton Harbor, the storm was getting worse. The pilot asked for clearance to descend lower, but that request was denied by air traffic controllers.

That was the last correspondence heard from Flight 2501.

"Nothing was found for more than 48 hours," van Heest added. "A fishing tug boat out of South Haven was retrieving its net two days later and up came all this debris."

Luggage, torn clothing, toys, seat cushions with the NWA logo on them, and body parts were all retrieved from the surface of Lake Michigan.

"Anything belonging to the airplane was collected and sent to the Civil Aeronautics Board for investigation, and anything belonging to the passengers went to Northwest Airlines Corporate Headquarters," sand van Heest.

The investigation into what happened to Flight 2501 was short-lived because the Korean War broke out soon after.

"Until just a few months ago, we didn't know what became of all those items that were collected by Northwest," said van Heest. "What we recently learned is that Northwest tried to reunite the possessions with family members."

This was the case for the family of Merle Barton, who was a passenger on Flight 2501.

"I got a phone call from Cathy Barton, the daughter of Merle Barton," said van Heest. "She said that her mother, Merle Barton's wife, was called by Northwest Airlines several days after the accident and was asked to come to down to corporate headquarters and pick up the belongings that they had identified as belonging to her husband."

"It was hard knowing that's all my mother had," said Cathy Barton-Snyder, who was 3-years old when her father died on Flight 2501, and now resides in San Antonio, Texas. "My uncle went up and identified the things as belonging to my dad."

Merle Barton's possessions had been kept in storage for over 60 years until Cathy Barton-Snyder decided to ship them to South Haven to be on display at the Flight 2501 exhibit at the museum.

"We'll be showcasing several of the artifacts that were actually pulled from the water just days after this accident happened," added van Heest. "Things that have not seen the light of day for more than 60 years."

Many of Merle Barton's possessions are on display at the museum for the public to see, including a stamp book he was carrying, several pieces of clothing, including the shredded suit jacket believed to have been worn by Mr. Barton when the plane crashed.

Other haunting artifacts of Mr. Barton's on display are his hair styling kit and his personal check book. The hair styling kit still contains all its instruments, including a straight-edge razor that was bent sideways due to the force of the plane hitting the water.

Museum visitors will also see Mr. Barton's check book, which had been floating on the surface of Lake Michigan for several days before being recovered. Most of the writing inside the checkbook is still legible, including the transaction where he paid $94 to Northwest for his roundtrip plane ticket Flight 2501.

"These are special artifacts that are going to connect us to the passengers," said van Heest. "They will make this accident real, and will remind us that right here off the coast of South Haven the worst commercial airline accident in the country happened."

As this museum exhibit opens, the search for Flight 2501 continues.

"My organization, Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, is continuing the search," added van Heest. "This will be our 11th straight year."

For the previous decade, famous author and underwater archaeologist, Clive Cussler has funded the search for Flight 2501, sending Ralph Wilbanks, one of the world's best side-scan sonar operators, to South Haven.

Cussler's team wasn't able to make it this year, so van Heest's team has taken over.

"We've been searching in waters as shallow as 100 feet and as deep as 350 feet," van Heest said. "We've covered about 600 square miles of territory out there."

While van Heest doesn't think the wreck will provide many answers to what caused Flight 2501 to crash, she says finding the spot may be the final closure that some of the living relatives of the victims are seeking.

"We have some concern whether there's enough debris remaining at the bottom of the lake that can still be picked up by sonar," van Heest added. "If we find anything, it will be a debris field, not an airplane."

Van Heest believes that the four big engines and possibly the tail section of the plane may still be somewhat in tact.

Along with the artifacts on display, a new piece of art has been created by a local artist to help commemorate the opening of the exhibit as well as possibly help bring some closure to the victim's family members.

It's like the last photograph that maybe never got taken," said Bryan Snuffer, who owns and operates an art gallery in Muskegon, Michigan. "This art will hopefully show the moments right before whatever caused the plane to crash."

Snuffer is best known for his military and aviation art. A few of his military pieces are actually on display inside the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

"It's hard not knowing what people have gone through these past 60 years, but hopefully this painting can provide some level of comfort for them," added Snuffer. "Maybe the painting can become something like a letter [from the passengers being sent to their family members 64 years later saying, 'at this moment, everything was still okay.'"]

"Bryan's painting will be unveiled at the opening of the exhibit," said van Heest. "This painting is going to memorialize this accident for now and forever so that we can always remember that these people lived and loved and are still loved today," said van Heest.

The grand opening reception for the Flight 2501 exhibit is Saturday, May 3 at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. The event is by invitation only and is scheduled to begin around 5 p.m. Family members of Flight 2501 will be in attendance.

The exhibit will open to the public on Sunday, May 4.


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