SAN FRANCISCO -- Somewhere below the ocean waves, probably about 2,000 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge and 15,000 feet deep, lies a pile of cold metal that may yield answers to a mystery that has agonized two men for most of their lives.
That pile is the wreckage of the Romance of the Skies, a Pan Am luxury airliner that left San Francisco International Airport 50 years ago this week en route to Hawaii -- and vanished.
Investigators eventually found a handful of bodies and a few bits of wreckage floating a hundred miles north of the flight path -- but nobody has figured out why the plane crashed, exactly where it crashed, or even whether all
44 people who were booked for the flight were on board that day.
What the disappearance left behind is a whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie, only real.
It involves two suspected onboard bombers, the possibility that the propeller assembly was so bad it shattered, and a missing flight tape recording, which, if found, could be processed through modern machinery to finally reveal what manner of chaos was going on in those final moments before death.
Did fire bring down the Romance? Mechanical malfunction? Sabotage by bomb or poison gas? All are possibilities.
The questions haunt Ken Fortenberry, 56, and Gregg Herken, 60.
They are determined to never rest until they get answers.
Fortenberry's father, navigator Bill Fortenberry, was on the flight and his body has not been found. Fortenberry was 6 and living in Santa Clara when the Romance disappeared, and for the next seven years he was convinced his father was stranded on a desert island and would one day come striding through the front door with a smile. His hunt for the truth drove him to become a news reporter and editor -- and to file hundreds of requests for records with the federal government over the past four decades.
Herken's connection is less direct, but nonetheless intimate.
His favorite elementary school teacher in San Mateo, stewardess Marie McGrath, was also on the flight and never found, and the shock of this news to his 10-year-old heart never left him. The airliner mystery is partly what pushed him to become a historian, and years later when he was hired as a director at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the first thing he did was dig for clues to the Romance crash -- to no avail.
Today, Herken is a history professor at the University of California at Merced and lives in Santa Cruz. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about the crash, he said.
Fortenberry says the same thing. The urgency in his voice sounds as if his father mounted the airliner's staircase just yesterday.
"I owe it to my dad, and I tell you this: I am not giving up," Fortenberry said by phone from his home in Denver, N.C., where he publishes the News@Norman newspaper. "If I leave this world without an answer, I'm sure I'll get it on the other side.
"But I want the answers now."
The flight on Nov. 8, 1957, was supposed to be a routine run for the four-engine Stratocruiser, then the biggest and most posh airliner in the world.
Booked for the trip were six crew members and 38 passengers, including honeymooning couples, the vice president of Renault Auto and the general manager of Dow Chemical -- the kind of people who could afford the then-whopping one-way ticket price of $300. They lifted off at 11:51 a.m.
Watches indicate time of trouble
As far as anybody knows, the trouble began about 5 p.m., right after the crew radioed its last all-is-well message to a Coast Guard cutter. It was just as the passengers were settling in for the caviar and champagne that would start their seven-course gourmet dinners, catered by Maxim's of Paris. They would have been leaning back in seats so spacious you could stretch out full-length, or perhaps sharing drinks on the cushy couches in the cocktail lounge in the belly of the plane.
The only way investigators know the trouble began around then is because the wristwatches attached to a few of the 19 bodies pulled from the ocean a week later were stopped at the same time:
Among the bodies, and the
72 tiny bits of debris floating with them, was a sprinkling of tantalizing clues.
Some metal had burn marks. Several people, including a stewardess still strapped to her seat, wore life vests, indicating that the plane was heading down in distress but not spinning out of control. Some bodies contained abnormal amounts of carbon monoxide, meaning the cabin may have been contaminated.
"These things were interesting, but in the end they didn't solve a thing," Herken said in an interview at his home while he pored over the 3-foot-high stack of records he has accumulated. "What we really need is the wreckage itself. We can guess what area of the ocean it's in, but nobody knows exactly where the pieces are."
The most promising leads emerged months later. That's when investigators, rummaging through the histories of those on the airliner, came across that old standby of flight disaster movies: potential madmen who changed insurance policies or wills just before boarding the plane.
The strongest suspect was 46-year-old purser Eugene Crosthwaite.
He had a suicidal persecution complex and bickered bitterly with his bosses. Police in his hometown of Felton, in Santa Cruz County, were so concerned about his treatment of his stepdaughter that they called him "psycho." And, most telling of all, he showed a relative some blasting powder a few days before the flight -- and changed his will to cut his stepdaughter out of direct benefit one hour before the plane's takeoff.
"The purser angle never made the light of day anywhere in the papers," said Fortenberry. "We only found out about it when we searched through the Pan Am investigation records, but he had everything -- motive, opportunity, materials. He was the perfect suspect."
Except, that is, for the ex-Navy frogman passenger who was an expert in demolition, desperate to pay off a debt, and who bought two gigantic insurance policies on himself three days before the flight.
William Payne, of the tiny town of Scotts Bar, Siskiyou County, was 41, and his last-minute insurance buys paid $125,000 to his wife, Harriet -- in addition to a $10,000 double indemnity policy he signed two weeks before the flight. The debt Payne owed was $10,000, on a hunting lodge.
Russell Stiles, an investigator for Western Life Insurance of Montana, became so convinced that Payne was never on the flight and blew up the plane with a delayed timer that he urged his company not to pay on the double indemnity policy. He was overruled but continued to pursue the case on his own -- and then became frightened.
"I first talked to Stiles about this in 1976, and we continued to correspond until he died," said Fortenberry. "He went to his grave in 1999 convinced that Payne was still around and would do harm to him and his family if he went public."
Stiles' family refuses now to talk to Fortenberry. Efforts to reach them, as well as any relatives of Crosthwaite or Payne, were unsuccessful.
Engine too strong for propellers
And finally, there is one more suspect in the case: the propellers.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser was driven by four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 B6 engines, the biggest airplane piston engines ever produced, and at top speed it went an impressive 350 mph. However, the engines were so powerful they had a nasty habit of shattering the propellers in flight.
In the months before the Romance disappeared, Pan Am ordered that a key oil tube to the prop housings on all its Stratocruisers be more firmly attached to stabilize the propellers. But no records show that had been done on the ill-fated airliner.
"Even after those fixes, they still had problems," Herken said, shaking a sheaf of aviation records on Pan Am's fleet. "That engine was just too big and too powerful."
In the end, after all the clues were combed, the Civil Aeronautics Board (the now-defunct predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board), the FBI and Pan Am all decided there wasn't enough solid evidence to fix blame on anyone. The inquiry records got shelved.
As for the debris -- nobody knows where it is. Not the University of Miami, which got all of Pan Am's records after the Florida company went belly up in 1991. Not the Historical Museum of South Florida, which got Pan Am's artifacts, and not the NTSB.
Tape wanted most of all
What Fortenberry and Herken want to get their hands on most is the tape of radio transmissions from the Romance that the Civil Aeronautics Board pored over 50 years ago. Pan Am pilots who heard it thought they detected a "mayday" and a reference to a "missing arm," but nothing was intelligible. Today's digital technology probably could clarify the sound.
But nobody knows where the tape went. It may be in the University of Miami archives, but the 1,500 boxes of Pan Am records there have yet to be fully organized, and a preliminary look there by a librarian at the Chronicle's request revealed no tape.
"I have a feeling that tape and the debris are in some warehouse in San Francisco that has no key," Fortenberry said. "I have this image of it being like that last scene in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' -- rows and rows of boxes, with no way to find anything in them."
Without the tape, the best hope of solving anything is to launch an expedition to find the Romance's wreckage on the ocean floor.
Fortenberry asked Robert Ballard, who located the wrecks of the Titanic and the German warship Bismarck, if he could help -- and was told it would cost at least $10,000 a day.
"We obviously don't have that kind of money," Herken said.
"But I know if we could just see that wreck, we could see if the problem was the propeller or a bomb. We would have our answers."
In the meantime, Fortenberry and Herken are about the only people left who care about the mystery.
"The sister of a Navy fellow on the flight (Cmdr. Joseph Jones) still calls me now and then, wanting to know if I have any answers," said Fortenberry. "But most everyone else is either dead or we can't find them."
Among the few others wanting answers is Bob Nelson Jr. of Sedona, Ariz., who missed dying on the flight by chance. He had his foot on the staircase leading up to the Romance's door that day, ready to board with his sister, Sandy, when a married couple came running onto the tarmac.
"We were booked on standby because this couple didn't think they'd make it to the flight, but then they caught a fast taxi and were able to bump us back off," Nelson, 62, said in a phone interview. "I was kind of bummed out, because I was 12 and I was going to get to visit the captain in the cockpit.
"Then the next morning we all read the news. Awful stuff. And you know, many years later I got bumped off a flight again, and people around me were pissed -- but not me. I just said, 'Hey, I could tell you a story.'
"It was pure luck of the draw, and I've been curious to know what really happened on that flight ever since."
Evidence would revive case
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said that if anybody produces solid evidence of a crime amounting to murder in the case of the Romance, the agency would reactivate the case and refer it to the FBI for investigation.
"You have to remember, though, that a lot of these never get solved," he said.
From 1962, when NTSB began keeping track, to 2006 there were 363 instances of vanished airplanes like the Romance -- plus the one flown this autumn in Nevada by adventurer Steve Fossett -- "and usually they go down over the water," Knudson added.
For Fortenberry, not knowing what truly happened to his father leaves a part of him that little boy back in 1957, waiting for Daddy to come home. He was to return Thursday to San Francisco International Airport with his two brothers to mark the 50-year anniversary by standing near the runway where their father last took off.
"I can still remember, clearly, being 6 years old and at the memorial service," Fortenberry said. "I remember wondering why we were doing this -- thinking, 'There's no body here. Here we were saying goodbye, and there's nobody to say goodbye to.' "
"There's still nobody to say goodbye to."