The precise spot where Flight 242′s burned wreckage is buried remains a mystery–yet its location has always been in the most public of places. After being immersed in this project for 6 months, I have learned that the wreckage has in fact been an unmarked grave site for almost 4 decades. Every year, many thousands of people unknowingly visit this underground tomb during athletic events at the Samuel U. Braly Sports Complex in Dallas, GA. How can this be? The story begins right after the April 4, 1977 disaster.
Within hours of the crash in New Hope, GA the National Transportation Safety Board had recovered the flight data recorder, sent it to Washington for analysis, and then quickly secured and removed both of the damaged engines for testing. By the end of the week they had taken what they could of the flight deck, the broken wings, and the badly mangled tail section and sent all of it to a secure hangar in Atlanta for further investigation. The rest of the wreckage, including the burned section of the fuselage where so many people had died, was simply transported on a flat bed truck to the county dump near Dallas and buried.
By mid-April, Highway 92 Spur was reopened to regular traffic, the telephone poles and lines had been fixed, the police barriers were down, and it was all about trying to “get back to normal.” New Hope had survived, and the tight community that had pulled together after the accident was made whole again…but a closer look paints a different picture.
Parts of the crash area, which stretched the length of six football fields and more, remained contaminated for months afterwards with the horrible detritus from the accident. The broken tree limbs had been removed and the ground was nominally raked, but the violent smell of human blood, bodily fluids, and burned flesh hung like a pall over the plane’s final resting site. Flies swarmed all around the curious gawkers, crash-trolls, and rubberneckers who invaded the grim scene, morbidly seeking souvenirs and often finding much more then they had bargained for. It was like the aftermath of a vicious Civil War battle. Promises had been made to fully remove the remaining top soil, but it was never dug up or taken away.
The buried section, which had not been properly cleaned or scoured, still contained the slight cremains of many of the burn victims; it lay undisturbed in the dump over the next decade beneath a growing pile of rubbish. And then in the mid-1980′s the county decided to finally close the landfill and build a much needed athletic complex at the same location. So they capped off the large surface area with a high-density covering, added an additional layer of top soil, and then created a series of ball fields called the Samuel U. Braly Sports Complex. Two decades later the uneven fields began to sink back into the landfill, so the whole area was regraded. The new and improved Braly Complex currently boasts fifteen soccer fields, a comfortable and modern pavilion, and several playgrounds for the kids.
But the burned section was sealed inside that dry tomb when they capped off the dump, and it remains buried there to this day. And even though a free-standing plaque to the victims can be found in the Civil War era cemetery right across from the New Hope First Baptist Church, many people in Paulding County feel that a more substantial memorial needs to be built to commemorate the victims of Southern Airways Flight 242.
I believe the Samuel U. Braly Sports Complex in Dallas is the perfect location for that vital 242 Memorial. It’s appropriate because the site contains the buried wreckage that carried so many of the people who lost their lives on that tragic day. It’s practical because the sports complex is easy to get to, there is plenty of free parking, and the grounds are well maintained. And it makes sense because the location will allow the memorial to educate Braly’s many visitors about the worst aviation crash in the history of the state of Georgia.