AUBURN – She stood at the rim of the ravine.

Below her, halogen lamps lit up the crash site. Bits of paper, luggage, clothes and airplane parts littered the ground. The lights made it easier for rescue workers to sift through the rubble for possible survivors.

There were none.

Clifton Smith, Auburn’s fire chief then, noticed the woman peering down at the wreckage. Although nearly 20 years have passed since the crash Aug. 25, 1985, he can’t shake the image.

“I always felt so bad for that lady,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Jane Smith had been waiting at Auburn-Lewiston Airport for her husband, Arthur, and 13-year-old daughter, Samantha, to arrive home from a trip to London, where she had been filming a segment for a new TV series. Samantha, an international celebrity, lived with her family a half-hour north of Auburn in the town of Manchester.

It had been three years since she had written to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, expressing worry about the nuclear arms race. He responded with a letter of encouragement and invited her to visit his country. She went in 1983, then wrote a book about the trip. The public adored her. The media responded with coverage.

At the crash site, about a half-mile southwest of the airport, Jane Smith was told none of the eight people on board the commuter plane had survived. She asked Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Ronald Roy to please check all the passengers with his stethoscope – to be sure. He said he would.

Bill Holland stepped carefully, bending over bodies and scattered body parts to attach trauma tags. The paper tags had wire looped through one end to secure them to the bodies. When that wasn’t possible, the paramedic laid the tags as close as he could to the remains, trying not to disturb anything.

It was standard emergency medical service procedure at an accident scene, in preparation for setting up a triage center, he said in a recent interview. The tags – labeled 1 to 4 – indicate the level of medical attention needed. Those tagged No. 1 get immediate medical attention; those tagged No. 4 require no medical attention. Holland used only Priority No. 4 tags at the crash site.

He made frequent trips up the bank of the ravine to the truck that night, where he rinsed his mouth with water and blew his nose, trying to rid his senses of the reek of spilled aviation fuel and chemicals, smoldering electrical circuits and charred flesh.

Holland saw a pile of papers lying on a nearby stone wall. He looked closer. It was the script from Samantha Smith’s “Lime Street” TV series. “Oh, no,” he remembered saying to himself.

“I couldn’t understand how it could happen to such a sweet little kid,” Holland said. “It just kind of breaks your heart when you think about it, cause all the little kid ever wanted to do was… ,” his voice broke, then trailed off.

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Five minutes before the crash, the co-pilots of the Beechcraft 99 twin-engine turboprop called the local airport for landing conditions, according to published reports. They gave no distress signal. Bar Harbor Airlines flight 1808 from Boston was scheduled to stop in Auburn at 9:15 p.m. before going onto Bangor. But it didn’t leave Logan Airport until 9:28 p.m. and visibility was poor.

The plane apparently veered off course about 400 feet to the right of the tower’s recommended approach. It clipped the tops of some pine trees before hitting the ground, skidding 100 feet, bursting into flames, then coming to rest in a gully.

Some speculated the plane was sabotaged by agents fearing Smith’s peace efforts. A combination of factors including rain and fog and pilot inexperience were listed as the official cause of the crash.

The call came into Auburn Central Fire Station at 10:05 p.m. The first crews arrived on the scene at 10:12 p.m.

Holland had been watching TV in the upstairs kitchen sipping coffee. He had just finished telling his partner that night on Rescue truck No. 1 that it would be a quiet night. The partner had been nervous because he had not been trained as a paramedic, but had swapped shifts with Holland’s usual partner, who possessed that medical training, Holland said.

It began as a fire call. Holland leapt to the pole, slid down to his truck and pulled on his turnout gear. As the bay doors were opening, the radio dispatcher alerted the crew to stand by. By the time Holland was following the captain’s Engine No. 3 down the street, the dispatcher had told emergency workers they were headed to a plane crash.

Holland set Plan D in motion. One hand was on the wheel. In the other, he used his radio to call Central Maine Medical Center. He told them to prepare for casualties and to call St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. Then he radioed the local ambulance service to dispatch as many units to the scene as possible.

They wouldn’t be needed.

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All passengers had died of trauma and burns, said Dr. Henry Ryan, chief medical examiner at the time. Because it was found in a stream, Samantha Smith’s body was burned least of any of the crash victims, he said.

All had likely died upon impact, he concluded.

They were later identified from their dental records by Augusta dentist Dr. James Dunn, a neighbor and close friend of the Smith family. Autopsies were performed on the two pilots. Nothing unusual was found that might explain the cause of the crash, Ryan said.

That night was the hardest of his career, Ryan said. Because no local authorities planned to go to the nearby terminal to inform the victims’ friends and relatives, Ryan, Roy and the county’s then-district attorney Janet Mills volunteered.

The friends and relatives had been waiting hours for some official word. Rumors had circulated that some of those aboard the plane had been taken to the hospital for treatment, but relatives were told to stay at the terminal because the hospital could not accommodate them.

When Ryan arrived at the terminal, he took a third of the group aside and told them the truth.

There were no survivors.

“I used to dream about what an awful thing that would be,” he said of his task. And it was.

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One of the first workers at the scene, Holland had searched the area for survivors. Sometimes they’ll wander off into nearby woods in a daze, then die from injuries or exposure, he knew.

A V-pattern of burn led up to the site where most of the debris and passengers were found, Holland said. The bodies of the pilot and co-pilot were found at the end of the trail of wreckage to the right, Holland said. An engine was wedged against a tree.

The pilot’s right hand was welded to the controls and left hand was clutching the stick, which was pulled far back toward him.

“He must have really been putting the power to that thing when they hit, I mean, trying to get some air,” Holland said.

The sight was surreal, he said. “It’s one of those things you don’t forget.”

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Samantha Smith was 10 years old when she wrote Andropov. She died three years later. In that time she had become a celebrity.

News of the crash spread quickly. Firefighters called local police for backup crowd control. The area was cordoned off, with fire and police officers stationed along the tape.

National reporters rushed to the scene. The foreign press was there. The world was watching.

“It took us a while to realize this could get out of control if we don’t establish a real strong perimeter,” said Auburn Fire Chief Wayne Werts, a lieutenant at the time.

Holland remembers climbing up the slope to his truck still before sunrise when he was hit by a blinding wall of camera lights.

Reporters peppered him with questions, told him to describe the site and asked what the bodies looked like.

“I didn’t have a very good comment for them,” Holland said. “You’ve just had enough. You just want to go and decompress.”

When he got off duty the next morning, Holland did that. He used alcohol to help put distance between himself and scenes like the one he had left earlier that morning. But the rum wasn’t working anymore.

A week later, he checked himself into a rehab center. When he got out, he started going to a therapist and church. He, like most of the emergency personnel at the scene that night, is now retired.

Subhead

Three days after the crash, more than 1,000 people converged on an Augusta church to remember Smith and her father. Among the mourners were then-Gov. Joseph Brennan, Soviet diplomat Vladimir Kulagin and film-television actor Robert Wagner, co-star of Samantha Smith’s TV series.

Kulagin read a statement from Andropov’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reign would lead to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union by the end of the decade.

Whenever Holland is in Augusta, he makes a point of going to the State House. In front of the Maine State museum is a life-size bronze statue of Samantha Smith releasing a dove, a bear cub at her feet.

“I wish I could have seen her that way, you know. I never met the little girl,” he said.

But the sight also triggers memories of the crash scene.

“It’s something that I don’t think anything can take away. You deal with it now. All those years it builds up and you deal with it.”


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