National Park Service / AP
Published Tuesday, July 8, 2014 | 1:35 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, July 8, 2014 | 5:30 p.m.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Visitors peered through binoculars and spotting scopes into the depths of the Grand Canyon, straining to see the spot where two commercial airliners crashed after colliding in mid-air nearly 60 years ago. Family members of the victims gazed out over the east rim of the canyon Tuesday, trying to imagine their loved ones' final moments in a disaster that helped overhaul U.S. aviation safety.
The 1956 crash killed all 128 people aboard the planes in the nation's deadliest airliner disaster at the time. In response, a country already struggling with increasingly busy skies pressured Congress for major changes to improve air traffic control and radar systems and to create what became the Federal Aviation Administration.
"It really did underscore for the general public, for the first time, that much of the air space in America was uncontrolled at that time," said Peter Goelz, former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board. "Once you got up to 20,000 feet and beyond the terminal radars, it was see and be seen."
At the Grand Canyon, officials are hoping to bring new awareness to the effects of the tragedy on families and American air travel. A plaque unveiled Tuesday marks the crash site as a National Historic Landmark.
"We are safer because of it," park ranger Brian Gatlin said of the crash, standing beside a "Tragedy Remembered" sign at the overlook, where it's impossible to see some of the wreckage that remains in the gorge.
About 200 people gathered for the ceremony, including a handful of family members, an aviation professor and tribal and federal officials.
Mike Nelson, a nephew of one of the passengers, said most people he meets have not heard of the disaster.
"We are here to care about the victims again, to picture them walking the ground and to tell them how sorry we are," Nelson said. "Maybe we can tell them hello — or goodbye."
Some of the victim's remains never were identified, and most of those that were have been buried together en masse at cemeteries at the Grand Canyon and the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff.
The United Airlines Douglas DC-7 and a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation both left California on June 30, 1956, eventually cruising at the same altitude — 21,000 feet — after the TWA pilot requested to fly above the clouds. Shortly before 10 a.m., both pilots reported to different communications stations that they would be crossing over the canyon at the same position at 10:31 a.m.
The Salt Lake City controller who had that information was not obligated to tell either of the pilots they could be on a crash course. It was the sole responsibility of the pilots to avoid other aircraft in uncontrolled airspace.
The investigative agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board, determined simply that the pilots did not see one another. The agency speculated that the pilots were treating passengers to views of the Grand Canyon while flying through scattered cloud buildup.
Meanwhile, pressure mounted on Congress to move faster to make air travel safer. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Airways Modernization Act, and airliners were required to have flight data recorders. What's now known as the FAA began operating late that year.
The investigators on the Grand Canyon crash pieced together what happened based on the wreckage. No one saw the planes collide.
The family of Leon David Cook Jr., a passenger on the United flight destined for Chicago, was huddled around the television that night awaiting word on what happened. The next morning, dozens of reporters were staked out in front of their Detroit home, said Cook's son Ray, then 12.
The TWA wreckage was found first. More than a mile away and several days later, the United wreckage was discovered.
Ray Cook said the crash destroyed his family. His mother died 14 years later when she drove drunk off an embankment, and his brother committed suicide at 37. Cook, who broke free from heavy drinking after 25 years, couldn't come to terms with the death for several years.
"I used to think every night that my father would walk out of the Grand Canyon, sunburned and scraggly, saying, 'They screwed up, I'm fine, here I am,'" he said.
The recovery operation was one of the most extensive and dangerous in the history of the National Park Service. Rescuers had to contend with harsh terrain, swirling winds and the remoteness of the crash sites where the wreckage was twisted, broken and melted. United brought in a Swiss mountain rescue group and the Colorado Mountain Club to help.
The crash sites near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers now are closed off to the public and being preserved for their place in history.
"The Park Service has to manage those sites as the resting place for those 128 souls," Grand Canyon National Park archaeologist Ian Hough said. "In many different ways, those people are still there."