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Book tells story of plane crash that killed figure skating team

January 29, 2011
By ERIC VOORHIS, For the Enterprise

LAKE PLACID - Shortly before 10 a.m., Belgian time, on Feb. 15, 1961, a plane carrying 34 people circled above the Zaventem Airport in Brussels before taking an unexpected turn, plunging down from a "cloudless, blue sky" and bursting into flames.

The 34 passengers on Sabena Flight 548 made up the entire 1961 World Figure Skating Team: 18 skaters, six coaches, four officials and six family members. None survived the crash.

In her new book, "Indelible Tracings: The story of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team," Patricia Shelley Bushman tells this story, delving into the lives of those onboard the flight.

Article Photos

The 1961 World Figure Skating Team
(Photo provided)

Through hundreds of interviews with skating coaches, athletes, officials, family members, and extensive research, her new book describes this pivotal moment that devastated a tight-knit community of U.S. figure skaters.

After the crash, the 1961 World World Figure Skating Team Memorial Fund was established. To this day the fund is committed to awarding skating and academic scholarships to athletes who have demonstrated excellent competitive results and have potential in national and international competitions.

Many of the skaters who perished had a close connection to Lake Placid, which, at the time, was even more of a premier destination for summer skating than it is now. The book devotes a chapter to the "Lake Placid Connection" shared by many athletes such as William Kipp, Rhode Lee Michelson and Larry Pierce, detailing accounts of their training and exploits in the Olympic Village. Of athletes Danny Ryan and Carol Ann Peters, Bushman writes: "Away from the rink, they went on hay rides, partied at someone's home, or roller skated down the center of Main Street - a popular activity until police caught them one night."

Bushman grew up skating at the Iceland rink in Paramount, Calif. and has written the narration for many national skating events, including the PBS skating show "An Evening with Champions," and "Celebration ... American On Ice!" She currently lives in Overland Park, Kan., with her husband and two children.

The weather in Kansas was just over 20 degrees with clouds, same as Lake Placid, on Tuesday afternoon when this reporter caught up with Bushman for a phone interview to hear more about "Indelible Tracings."

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Tell us about putting this book together, all of the research, the interviews - how long did it take?

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Well, I didn't really know what I was doing in the beginning. It started with a few people, mostly interviews with people I knew through skating. I'd always have questions prepared, but we'd end up on tangents because there were more and more people involved. One interview would lead to five more, and so on. At some point I had a wish list of people I wanted to talk to. I thought I'd have to interview around 200 people to piece everything together, but by the end I had done 340 interviews. I also had stacks of old skating magazines that I would pour over, looking for any clues I could find.

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What was it like talking to that many people about such a horrible event?

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I realized early on that the emotions were still so fresh for many of the people I spoke with. I asked each of them where they were, what they were doing when they heard the news, and they all seemed to remember so vividly and clearly. Of course, many of them cried; sometimes I cried with them. The event was so sad, but talking about their friends and family was a joyous experience.

I had to talk to them about the accident, but what I wanted to do was celebrate the lives of those lost and say, "Look how much they accomplished. Look how much they gave to the skating world. Let's celebrate their lives and what they meant."

I now have all of these oral histories - and there were so many stories - but they had never been written down. So I'm just grateful that so many people were willing to talk to me, and that these memories were preserved.

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The crash happened half a century ago, and this is the first time the story has been told in-full. Why do you think it's taken so long?

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On one hand I wish I had started the project sooner. But I also don't know if I could have accomplished what I did. It's almost like World War II veterans. A lot of people I spoke to were talking about it for the very first time. So many people had just buried it. It wasn't that these people knew one person on that plane. Usually they knew all of them. Because of places like Lake Placid, they trained and lived with each other. There was an incredible sense of family, of community. The only appropriate word for what happened is devastating.

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Can you talk more about the connection to Lake Placid that was common to many of the 1961 U.S. figure skaters?

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It was really the mecca for figure skating at the time. Broadmoor [skating rink in Colorado Springs, Colo.] was also very big. But Lake Placid was important because it had so many coaches from the '30s who taught there. There was also a two-week dance festival every summer that brought in skaters from all over the Eastern U.S., Canada and the mid-West. Of course, with the history of the Olympic games it has been an important part of the skating culture for so long. Lake Placid was a character in this story that kept coming up.

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Have you ever been to Lake Placid?

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Yes, once. I went to visit some friends who live in Burlington (Vt.). I rented a car and spent an entire day walking around the village, going to the rink, checking things out. A lot had changed, obviously, but I took a lot of pictures and got a sense of what it must have been like to be there. I went to the public library and found some old articles, which was a pleasant surprise. I was only there for a day, but it was good. I liked walking in their shoes, and getting a sense for what it was like for them.

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I understand there's a film, "Rise," coming out based on these events. What was your role in that?

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I was a research consultant for the film, so I was very involved on the pre-production side of things. At this point, I don't know too much about it, but I helped offer some of my research and contacts, suggested people to interview, provided interview questions. I know they have a really good team working for them now. I'm sure it's going to be wonderful. (The film, which is being produced by United States Figure Skating, will hit selected theaters across the nation on Feb. 17.)

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One thing that's still not entirely clear is why this tragedy happened? Why did the plane go down?

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We can't conclusively say. For a lot of people that has never been a satisfactory explanation. It just seemed so improbable. Secretly I'm hoping that someone is paying attention out there. That some aviation expert will look into this a little bit more, but it was never really my goal to solve the mystery. I realized that I didn't want to focus on the accident anyway. I wanted to tell the stories of the 34 people who were on board. There were 34 people that died, and they all have their own story.

 
 

 

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