The Story of United Airlines Flight 409

05/06/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

When United Airlines Flight 409 took off from Denver, Colo., on the morning of October 6, 1955, the 66 people on board, including five female members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a number of military personnel, had no idea that the DC-4 propliner would never make its Salt Lake City destination.

Something happened as the plane flew over the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide to make it veer to the west, and then fly at a dangerously low altitude. It's probably safe to say that the passengers never knew any danger, and did not experience any panic prior to the plane's crash into the face of Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains of Wyoming. The crash was that sudden.

The crash was the worst air disaster in the United States at that time. Evidence of the crash can still be seen on the face of the cliff, because it left a very large black stain at the point of impact. The sun-bleached cliffs of Medicine Bow Peak are daunting enough without the black stain, because the jagged peaks have a prehistoric look.

Standing at the foot of Medicine Bow, as I did at age 19 with Zane, the father of a high school friend, I studied the face of the cliff and inspected the stain above my head that stands out like a massive birthmark. I wondered how an experienced pilot could end up flying 60 feet lower than he should have been flying so that, at the last minute, he attempted to gain altitude before slamming the plane into the face of the cliff.

Observing the point of impact in that quiet, beautiful, desolate area put Zane in a meditative mood. It was the month of September, some fourteen years after the crash. I was standing on a large boulder while Zane faced me on another boulder. I was wearing tan desert hiking boots and Zane, who had driven us here from his home in Boulder, Colo., wore a white shirt and jeans. We were at the beginning of a road trip through Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, when he decided to show me Medicine Bow.

He called Medicine Bow a place of beginnings and endings. Zane was not a religious man; in fact, he hated organized religion, and he often criticized my family's Irish Catholic roots. In many ways, he was an atheist who didn't want to be an atheist; he knew that life's mysteries couldn't always be answered by science. He liked to quote Henry Miller while driving, and he also liked to tell me stories about his life as a young ranch hand who wrote detective stories and who had multiple affairs with waitresses who worked in diners on lonely mountain roads.

Standing at the foot of Medicine Bow, his reverence seemed to rival my grandparents' attitude when I would see them kneeling in church. The man of many words had been reduced to silence.

Medicine Bow was sacred to him for many reasons: there was the sheer beauty of the place and there was the black stain on the face of the cliff, with its symbolic reminder of human mortality and the unpredictability of life. One could easily imagine filmmakers redoing Planet of the Apes here, or a western epic with cowboys and Apaches. It was also the perfect Sci-Fi environment, as one could easily imagine a UFO landing as space visitors emerged from the craft.

The sun was beginning to set as we continued to talk about life. Zane became very philosophical, talking about his life and about his meetings with Idaho novelist Vardis Fisher.

The "Great Atheist," as I used to call him, then started to pepper his comments with stories of Edgar Cayce's teachings about reincarnation. At age 19, the idea of death seemed far off to me. This was the summer that I had foolishly allowed Zane's oldest son to take me mountain climbing and then coax me into rappelling down a mountainside with just a rope and a spike driven into the top of the mountain as the only things standing between me and a fatal fall.

Zane was furious when he learned that his son had talked me into doing this because fatal mountain climbing accidents happen frequently near Boulder.

I wasn't thinking about God or the meaning of life in those days--only about experiencing as much of life as possible. The idea was to go to extremes, then try to make sense of it all afterwards.

For Zane and I, the black stain on the face of the cliff represented death, and death was a nudging problem. Was life only about racking up experiences like a miser hoarding cold coins? Why was this black stain on the side of the cliff so annoying, and why did it silence Zane and give him, if only for a while, priestly air?

Talking about the plane crash in that early evening September light, I thought of the passengers, what they felt the moment they died, and where they were now.

Zane told me that the plane had wavered off course and was flying too low, and that the pilot could not see the face of the cliff because there were many low-lying clouds. The clouds had led the plane to its destruction.

On October, 7, 1955--a day after the crash--The New York Times reported:

"First rescuers to reach the scene said they had found about 50 bodies strewn along a 300-foot course down the face of the mountain. Only a tailpiece, part of the fuselage and a wing of the plane had been located at mid-afternoon by rescuers who fought snowdrifts and a howling wind on the 12,005-foot Medicine Bow Peak. The mountain is about 40 miles west of here in the Snowy Range. The front part of the split plane was believed to have fallen down the other side of the peak. Another rescue group went up the north face of the mountain from Rawlins. The operation was suspended this evening because of a snowstorm and darkness."

The report continued:

"The scene was marked by two huge patches of oil where the plane's engines apparently struck about 50-75 feet from the peak. The wreckage then slid down the steep incline in two ravines, much of it coming to rest 300 feet down on a small glacier. I don't see how there would be a chance of anyone surviving, said Capt. Conine, Wyoming Air National Guard jet pilot, who was one of the first to spot the wreckage."

After the crash, nearby ranchers approached the site then notified authorities but it took the Wyoming Air National Guard several attempts before they were able to locate the crash. They searched nearby Elk Mountain, but then as they approached Medicine Bow, they spotted the wreckage southwest of the highest portion of the peak.

When help finally arrived, many of the bodies had to be removed on horseback because of the inhospitable terrain. A number of Catholic priests were brought to the area to bless bodies and perform extreme unction.

In a popular YouTube video about the site, filmed within the last ten years, one can see an explorer rummaging through fragments of the wreckage. He finds scrap metal, part of a propeller and engine parts. Other hard-to-identify airline fragments turn up tucked into the crevices of rocks. The explorer even finds broken passenger shoes.

Initially, United Airlines wanted all of the wreckage fragments removed from the site, so the area was bombed. But how it was bombed is still a source of controversy: Some say that the military dropped napalm to destroy the crash remnants, while others maintain that explosives were placed into face of the cliff.

Whatever method was used, it proved ineffective. Remarkably, crash site hunters who have explored the area since then leave the wreckage parts where they find them. Stealing parts for personal archival use has, fortunately, not been a problem.

The history of Medicine Bow Peak illustrates another reason why the site is considered sacred. The name "Medicine Bow" came together because the name "bow" refers to the mountain mahogany wood that the local Native tribes used in the making of bows.

These bows, apparently, were rather exceptional and strong. The word "medicine" can be traced to the tribal gatherings that took place in the area once a year. Not only did the various mountain tribes make their bows here, but they held powwows, the purpose of which was to heal the sick and to prevent the tribes from contracting diseases. This certainly gives it a right to be called a sacred place.

I've thought of the Snowy Range many times since my only visit there as a kid. During moments of personal reflection, I sometimes envision the mountain peaks and recall the stark beauty of the place. Thoughts of Zane also surface, as he passed away over a decade ago. Sometimes I wonder why Zane didn't encourage me to explore the base of Medicine Bow when we were there, and why he was so insistent about our not wandering too far from his parked car.

When I researched the area, a little more, I think I discovered the reason:

The Medicine Bow/Snowy Range area is home to many different kinds of wildlife, including moose, elk, mountain lion, black bear and bobcat. When famous American frontiersman Kit Carson was alive, he barely escaped the jaws of death when he wrestled himself away from two Bow grizzly bears.