Part Two: 40 years later man recalls Maine's worst commercial aviation disaster

Published: May. 29, 2019 at 6:53 PM EDT
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On May 30, 1979, Downeast Airlines Flight 46 crashed in thick fog in Owls Head killing 17 people.

One person survived.

40 years later, John McCafferty went back to the crash site with one of his rescuers from that terrible night.

They had never met, until last week.

What transpired was cathartic for both men as they were taken back to a night that neither one will ever forget.

"You walk into a place like this, right now it's so peaceful, you couldn't even imagine what happened here."

"No. Yeah, 40 years. I doubt it's really changed all that much."

When I met up with John McCafferty and headed to the Knox County Regional Airport, little did we know what was about to happen.

Two airport employees had a connection to that awful night 40 years ago. Paul Willis was just 16 at the time. He helped lead authorities to the crash site. Jim Philbrook was an 18-year-old first responder on the scene. Neither wanted to talk on camera, but they both wanted to meet John. At first, I'm not sure anyone really wanted to visit the crash site because of the memories of that night, but after everyone talked it over, going back together proved to be a cathartic experience.

"Glad to have seen them after all these years. I'm glad they're still around to come back here with me, and I definitely appreciate the help that they gave me that night, and I always will."

John, just 16 at the time, remembers the moment he knew the plane was going to crash as he saw the trees through the window.

"Well, that tree right there, it was actually clipped."

"It kept clipping more trees and more pieces of the plane kind of breaking up and falling off. It left quite a trail of debris, I guess."

One can only imagine how difficult it was for rescuers that night in thick woods and dark, foggy conditions. Jim remembers hearing John crying out in the night. Severely injured, he had somehow managed to get away from the wreckage.

"JImmy, did I crawl uphill, or did I crawl out here? Over here? Okay."

"You've got to remember it was all just like that. All these alders. Yeah, it wasn't cleared out like this."

John says despite surviving the crash itself, he still thought he was going to die in the woods, until he saw a flashlight shine on him, hearing a rescuer say, "Oh my God."

"Thank God you guys showed up. If I'd have been out here another, before you guys started getting bandages on me, if I'd gone another 20-25 minutes, I'd have been dead for sure."

John was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. He says the worst part was struggling with the guilt of being the only survivor.

"It was really upsetting to know that everybody else was gone and that so many families would be affected."

40 years later, John says he still has nightmares about that night, but he's glad to be alive. He says he'll always wonder why, knowing it was a miracle he survived.

"So, how long has it been since you've been back here, John? I came down here five years ago. And you've only been here a couple of times since the crash? Yup. I can't imagine it get any easier coming here. No. This is probably the last time I come down here."

We want to thank John and the guys from the airport for letting us come along.

We had not planned it, but it was an amazing experience to witness for all involved.

As John mentioned, he is trying to write a book to both record his thoughts and honor the victims.

He says he isn't a writer and could use a little help.

You can email him at johnmccaffertysolesurvivor at