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Friends, family, strangers come together 50 years later to remember victims, survivors of Flight 128

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Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

On a hillside in Hebron, 50 years ago tonight, the lives of 82 people and their families were changed forever when TWA Flight 128 crashed on approach to the Greater Cincinnati airport.

An airplane leaving CVG passes overhead as State Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, reads a proclamation at Sunday’s memorial service (photos by Mark Hansel).

Of the 82 people on board, only 12 survived the crash.

Among those was a 15-month-old infant, who will forever be known as the baby in the tree. Those who perished included a 21-year-old American serviceman from Millvale, Pennsylvania, heading to Pittsburgh to reunite with his family after a tour of duty in Vietnam.

On a brisk Sunday afternoon, at an aviation memorial at England Idlewild Park on CVG property in Burlington, friends, family members and some who never knew any of those on board, came together to honor their memory.

Click here to view a short video of Sunday’s memorial service.

Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore read a proclamation declaring it “TWA Flight 128 Day” in the County and State Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, delivered a citation that will be read into the record when the General Assembly gavels into session in January.

“It’s an honor to be part of the ceremony here today, representing the county, first-responders and all of the public works officials and volunteers that respond each and every day to the call,” Moore said.

Robert Hart of Ashland, KY, Tracy Smith-Eby, of Cincinnati and Richard Maier are all linked through TWA Flight 128. Hart and Smith-Eby survived the crash. Maier’s brother, U.S. serviceman Ronald Maier, perished in the crash en route to Pittsburgh to be reunited with his family after serving a tour in Vietnam.

Tracy Smith-Eby, now 51, was the baby in the apple tree. She obviously doesn’t remember anything from that night, but has been told she was resting in her grandmother’s lap when the plane went down, and was somehow placed safely in the apple tree as the aircraft exploded in flames, just a short distance away.

“Until this group got together, I never knew how I got off the plane,” Smith-Eby said. “I never knew who picked me up and as soon as I met the first responders, they told me that I was in an apple tree. That was always one of my big questions, ‘how did I make it?’”

Smith-Eby, of Cincinnati, said she has lived a normal life and most of the people she knows today aren’t even aware that she was the baby in the tree.

“It’s not something that comes up in normal conversations,” Smith-Eby said. “It came up a lot when I was younger, as everybody who knew me (then), knew I was the baby from the airplane. It’s just been part of my history, I don’t remember anything about it and that is a good thing, just to know that I was a survivor.”

Smith-Eby said it means a lot to her that people are still honoring those who perished, and the survivors, 50 years later.

“It’s wonderful to see all of the people here, to meet some of the other family members of the people who didn’t make it off the plane,” Smith-Eby said. “To see Bob is always great, to see that he is still around is a wonderful thing.”

Linda Holbrook, a Cincinnati Bell telephone operator on the night of the crash, was instrumental in organizing the memorial service.

“Bob” is Robert Hart of Ashland, Kentucky, now 92, who worked for the Internal revenue Service at the time of the crash.

“It amazes me, I can’t get over what they are doing here today,” Hart said. “I was really knocked out, so I don’t remember much about the night, but I’m glad I made it.”

Hart suffered multiple burns and a broken leg and spent a month-and-a-half in the hospital. He subsequently returned home to Ashland and later required an additional surgery on the leg.

Richard Maier drove in from Pennsylvania Sunday morning for the memorial service. His brother, Ronald Maier, was just 21 at the time he perished in the crash. Maier was returning to Millvale, Pennsylvania after serving a tour in Vietnam.

“We were all waiting for the plane to arrive at the Pittsburgh airport when we got the news,” Richard Maier said. “I was just 13 at the time and it’s devastating for a boy that age to lose his older brother.”

TWA Flight 128 survivors Robert Hart, now 92, and Tracy Smith-Eby, the baby in the tree, share an embrace, at Sunday’s memorial service.

Linda Holbrook, a Cincinnati Bell telephone operator who fielded calls from panic-stricken family members on the night of the crash, was instrumental in organizing the memorial service. Holbrook said she always felt badly that she couldn’t provide more information on that night, but communication was not as advanced as it is today.

“I’m just glad I can do something for them now,” Holbrook said.

England Idlewild Park was chosen as the location for the service because an Aviation Memorial and Memorial Grove are located at the park near the entrance. The Memorial is dedicated to the victims of air disasters in Boone County.

In addition to TWA Flight 128, American Airlines Flight 383 crashed into a hillside on approach to the airport near the site where TWA Flight 128 went down two years later. Only four of the 62 people on board survived.

In 1955, TWA Flight 694 crashed two minutes after takeoff when it collided with an unreported DC-3 aircraft. A total of 15 people, which included everyone on board both aircraft, died in the collision.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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