Dean William Rutherford banged on door after door, waking up students in the morning hours of June 28th 1970. It was a Sunday, during summer session, so many students were sleeping in. He was recruiting volunteers for a grim, long, and demanding assignment. “Get dressed. It’s going to be a long day. We are needed,” he told groggy students who answered the door for him. He had no trouble finding Smitties willing and able to help. He recruited even more from the cafeteria, perhaps twenty in all. The students gathered their gear and loaded up in vehicles, and headed to the Corey’s Road.
The day before, Charles Harding was piloting his Piper Cherokee on a return flight from Montreal, carrying his wife and three of their four children, when he encountered reduced visibility over the Adirondacks, not far from Paul Smith’s. He contacted the Massena airport over the radio and requested an instrument flight plan as he had lost visual contact with terrain below. He reported his altitude to be 4,100 feet and was advised to climb to 7,000 feet. While the pilot was reading the flight plan back to Massena, the radio went silent. No further contact was made.
During the afternoon and into the evening of June 27th, planes and helicopters searched from the air for the missing plane. Around 8pm, Herb Helms, the legendary Adirondack bush pilot from Long Lake, spotted the wreckage not far from the summit of Seward Mountain, a remote, trail-less peak, 4,347 feet in elevation. He could only make out the tail section, as the rest of the plane was in flames. He reported that the crash was not survivable. Any actual attempt to reach the wreckage would have to wait until morning.
Forest Rangers, State Troopers, and members of the Tupper Lake fire department were the first to go interior, starting about 4:30 that Sunday morning. Forest Ranger Dave Ames, class of 1962, and Forest Ranger Frank Dorchak, who later would become an adjunct faculty member at Paul Smith’s (1989-92), were part of the first crew into the woods. After four to five hours and over 2,000 feet in elevation gain, that first crew found the crash site. It was only 300 feet off the most commonly-hiked drainage taken by those ascending Seward. The ground crew received directions from a state police helicopter overhead, which watched their position relative to the crash site.
The plane crash was, indeed, not survivable. “That was a heart wrenching one,” Dorchak recalled 45 years later. Forest Rangers in the Adirondacks get very hardened to tragedy and death in the woods. It’s an occupational hazard to all first responders. “I had nightmares about that one for a long time.” His recollection is still keen and intense, all these decades later.
The Paul Smith’s students made their way up in the second crew. In addition to their own supplies, they carried rescue gear and body bags. Since the first crew had successfully navigated to the site, the students were assigned to place flagging tape to mark the way for others to follow. “We ran out of flagging at one point but we got the idea to mark the way by peeling the oranges in our lunches and hanging the peels on branches” recalled John Garajcek 71’ a student at the time.
The rangers and troopers secured the scene and kept the students away from the wreckage, while they investigated and prepared the bodies to be carried off the mountain. The adult victims were placed in rescue litters. Once that was completed, the work of carrying the victims off the mountain began. It was a shared responsibility.
It had only been 20 years since the “big blow” and the side of Seward was still covered with massive blown over trees now interspersed with small saplings regenerating from the natural disturbance. “The trees laid over each other like pickup sticks,” recalled Dave Reukaut 71’ one of the students there that day. “We lined up and passed the litter up and over trees from person to person. It was slow and difficult for the first few hundred yards.” Besides battling physical and emotional fatigue, the heat and blackflies took their toll on the crews. At around 7:00pm they reached the bottom of the drainage, where Ward Brook meets the old truck trail that also bears its name. From there the victims and crews were given rides out of the woods.
It was a day no one who was there would ever forget. It was tragic, but there was work to do. It was the type of difficult, tiresome, and unacknowledged work that Paul Smith’s students went to college to do then, just as they do now. Deep in the wilderness, they helped bring the tragedy to a close. Hopefully the rest of the Harding family could also find closure. Their family was well cared for that day and were ever present in the hearts and minds and tears of everyone who helped bring them out.
The wreckage of the plane remained on the side of Seward. It was damaged beyond any salvage value, given its remote location. Hikers occasionally came across the plane. More than once a hiker would frantically call it in to the Forest Rangers, thinking they had come across an unknown crash. That came to an end about 15 years ago when the main hiking route up Seward changed. The plane’s precise location had never been recorded by GPS.
In November of 2015 Justin Demers, class of 2002, and I, class of 1993, attempted to find the plane. We met at 7:00am at the main trailhead and hiked in over 4.5 miles to the start of the current herd path which follows Ward Brook up to the summit of Seward. After another three miles we made the top and a little after 11:00 began searching the Northeast shoulder of the mountain. We found intermittent and faded remnants of what we thought might have been the herd path in 1970. We swept over blow down and through krummholz without success for hours. We stayed about 100 feet apart and followed our paths on GPS units sweeping back and forth along specific contours. On our last sweep of the day, heading back towards the current herd path, we found the plane. Very few people have been to the site, so it feels eerily undisturbed despite the obvious and massive damage to it. The sadness I felt for the tragedy that occurred was mixed with pride, knowing the role Paul Smith’s students played that day.