Miracle on the Mountain
Published: December 11, 2005 | 2974th good news item since 2003
He worried nearly 60 years about woman he pulled from the snow
Two hours into the flight, around 2:25 in the morning, a loud bang woke Irving Schwartz, and the airplane jerked wildly.
Down, down, it plunged, clipping off the tops of trees, then slicing through the middles, an angry, frantic descent. It gouged a 450-foot swath along the mountain, then split apart.
Irving, who was 25, found himself on the ground, his spine injured, his left shoulder smashed. He was a second lieutenant in the Marines, shipping out to war, when American Airlines Flight 9 crashed that night more than 60 years ago, Feb. 23, 1945.
From a few feet away, he said, a man called and Irving crawled to him. The man had a fractured hip and couldn’t walk. The temperature was below freezing and, like Irving, the man was dressed in shirtsleeves. Irving pulled coats from the remnants of the plane’s closet and ripped a piece of carpet off the floor, then he lay beside the man, and covered them both.
It was pitch-dark on the steep side of Glade Mountain in southwest Virginia. Irving said they heard voices, crying and groaning, but they could not see who called or from where. Agua, a man said in Spanish, begging for water.
Nineteen passengers had been on the DC-3 airplane, two pilots, one flight attendant. As the night wore on, snow and sleet covered the survivors in a deathly blanket.
One after another after another, the voices fell silent.
Except from somewhere up the mountain, a woman moaned.
After daylight, Irving remembers crawling up to find her.
Sally Padgett was bleeding and shoeless, dressed in her flight attendant’s uniform and stockings. Irving recalls dragging her to shelter beneath the wreckage. A newspaper account says she walked. No one knows for sure.
He covered her with a coat, and he and the other man lay beside her to warm her up.
They waited for help. And waited. For five hours, they waited.
Around midday, an engine roared overhead. A rescue plane spotted the wreckage, but no survivors. “22 Feared Killed in Virginia Airliner Crash,” a newspaper announced. The call went out to Irving’s parents and Sally’s preacher that they were dead.
Four more hours, they waited.
When rescuers arrived late that afternoon, some 14 hours after the crash, they discovered two men and a woman beneath the wreckage, alive. A fourth survivor lay not far away. A farmer happened upon a fifth survivor who was wandering down the mountain. Seventeen people, including both pilots, were dead.
Irving spent 4 1/2 months in the hospital, and he wondered about the others and whether they lived. He later tracked down three survivors, but never Sally.
Irving feared the worst.
Sally, who was 23, suffered a fractured skull, a concussion, a broken collarbone and gangrene in her left ankle. She spent 3 1/2 months recuperating. She remembered nothing of the crash. All she knew was what she read in newspapers. She got on with her life, no nightmares to haunt her.
She moved around the country with her husband, a career Navy officer, and they had two children. In 1999, fifteen years after her husband died, she moved to The Cypress of Charlotte retirement community to be near their daughter, Kitty Bauknight.
A story about Sally and the plane crash appeared in The Cypress’ newsletter in November 2003. Irving’s brother lives at The Cypress, and his daughter read the story on a visit there.
Wasn’t this the same crash, she asked, that Uncle Irv was in?
A second miracle
Sally opened the door to her condominium a few months later and a tall, handsome stranger wrapped his arms around her.
I have wondered about you, Irving said, for nearly 60 years.
For all those years, Irving thought Sally had never recovered. To discover she was living at The Cypress, where his brother and sister both live, seemed unbelievable.
Sally thinks it’s a miracle of God that they survived, and she thanks God at the start of every day. To meet the man who helped save her life, she says, is another miracle.
I can’t believe this! she cried.
Irving told Sally details of the crash she never knew. He told her about the other survivors, now dead. Talking with Irving, Sally thought, might trigger memories of what happened. But she still recalls nothing.
It was February 2004 when they met, and Irving liked The Cypress so much, he decided to move there. He and his wife relocated this past June from upstate New York. Sheila Schwartz, who had been ill for 15 years, died a week later.
This time it was Sally’s turn to help. She reached out to Irving in his grief.
Irving, who turns 86 on Wednesday, doesn’t take credit for saving Sally’s life, but Sally, who is 84, insists he did.
“I have tremendous guilt,” Irving said, “because I didn’t cover her feet and she nearly lost her feet.”
“Oh, Irving,” Sally said. “I would have died of hypothermia if you hadn’t helped me.”
Irving has been in Charlotte only six months but the bond they share is so great, Sally said, it’s as if they’ve known each other all their lives.