I first learned about the tragic crash of Southern Airways Flight 242 in November of 2008. Kennestone Hospital had just dedicated their new history exhibit, and right next to old Dr. Hagood’s worn leather medical bag was a black & white photograph of a badly burned patient being wheeled into their emergency room in Marietta, GA.
I questioned one of the veteran nurses, and she told me it showed an injured survivor being medivaced in from the Southern Airways 242 crash site. She said the plane had crashed and burned after trying to land on a two-lane highway in rural New Hope, Georgia, a small community located 35 miles northwest of Atlanta.
I had just moved to Atlanta from Asheville, N.C. I was a newly married man with a beautiful wife, two teenage step children, and a challenging job at Kennestone. But every time I walked past the history exhibit I wondered about the injured survivor. Who was he? Who else had survived the fiery plane crash? Why did the aircraft crash in the first place? The nurse told me that 72 people had died that day, but I was so busy with my new job that I didn’t have the time to pursue the story. Plus, the stock market had just crashed and we were in the middle of a severe drought. The world seemed to be shifting underfoot, so I just let it drop.
Four years passed. And then in the winter of 2012 I met a volunteer at work who told me about a steamer trunk she had inherited from her mother in 1993 that contained her great uncle’s Civil War correspondence – letters which her family had held onto for almost 150 years. She allowed me to publish some of them, and while I was doing research for that project I read about the Battle of New Hope Church in May of 1864. I thought, “Can this be the same New Hope?” But I was completely focused on the Civil War project, so I once again put Southern 242 on the back burner.
It wasn’t until March of 2013 that all of the pieces for this oral history project fell into place. I had been talking with a good friend about how the community of New Hope had been the site of both a bloody Civil War battle in 1864 and a deadly airplane crash in 1977. He put me in contact with a co-worker of his from the area, who then invited me to the upcoming memorial service marking the 36th anniversary of the crash.
I took my first trip out to the New Hope on March 24, 2013, and I never looked back. It was the beginning of a journey that completely consumed me. This air-disaster has not been an easy story to tell, but I have done my best. I am also proud of the role that my hospital played in the aftermath of that horrific event.
Southern 242 crashed in New Hope, GA on a Monday, April 4, 1977 at 4:18 PM, and the Kennestone Hospital disaster plan was put into effect just twelve minutes later. The first patient was delivered by military helicopter to the emergency room just after 5 PM. A total of four patients were medivaced in, and the remaining 11 victims came by ambulance. Of the 15 patients received, two were DOA, one died in the emergency area, and seven were sent directly to the burn unit at Grady Hospital. The rest were admitted.
The April 1977 issue of KenneGram, the Kennestone Hospital newsletter, describes how the hospital staff rose to the occasion and responded to the tragic crash of Southern Airways Flight 242 – the worst aviation disaster in Georgia history.
— Clifford B. Davids (March 2013)
Disasters are events crowded with varying emotions and reactions. The scenes that played out at Kennestone Hospital after the tragic airplane crash of April 4 encompassed all of these emotions.
The most touching moment at the hospital came with the arrival of Cathleen Keele, wife of the co-pilot Lyman Keele, Jr. Her arrival in the emergency area brought the reality of the tragedy to the busy medical staff.
Outside, teams of Kennestone employees whisked the patients from the helicopter directly to the recovery room for special burn treatment. The burden of safely transporting the burn patients weighed heavily on the hospital employees.
Prior to the arrival by helicopter, the Kennestone staff had waited anxiously for the landing while fighting the wind. Employees, doctors, and volunteers all stood by the emergency entrance…waiting and wondering.
Thankful to be alive, Kennestone patient and survivor Jim Phillips told his harrowing tale the following morning. One of the least injured, Phillips returned home to Huntsville, Alabama a few days later, relieved to have been one of the 22 survivors.
Like a company of well-trained actors, the Kennestone team moved through the difficult scenes with certainty after the repeated disaster rehearsals and the anxiety of opening night. The hospital was truly “on stage” for the entire world to observe. When the final curtain dropped on this human tragedy, many tears were shed from fatigue, compassion, and relief.
— The Editor