GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, NL – It's a story that leaves you speechless.
In 1967 Dr. Neil Harvey was a 29-year-old medical doctor who had recently graduated from Dalhousie University.
He was working at the hospital in Gander when his on-call phone rang at 2 a.m. on Sept. 5.
A Czechoslovakian aircraft had crashed on take-off from Gander airport, and the doctor was needed.
What he didn't know then was that his emergency call would last for hours.
It would be 24 hours before he would be able to get back to his house to rest.
Fifty years later he says the images of that day are still sharp in his mind.
He spoke publicly about it for the first time at the Nov. 14 opening of an art exhibit at the Gordon Pinsent Centre commemorating the 50th anniversary of the crash, which ultimately took the lives of 35 of the 69 passengers onboard the aircraft.
Dr. Harvey, who had never before spoken to media about the event, talked to the Advertiser about his memories.
After the call, Dr. Harvey got dressed and drove straight to Union East Road to attend to the crash victims. Upon arrival, he says the scene was surreal as flames lit up the night sky.
"The flames were a yellow-green color," he recalls.
"I know I'll never forget that night as long as I live."
- Dr. Neil Harvey
The terrain of the crash site made for tough going.
As he proceeded to attend to the victims, Dr. Harvey recalls falling into the bog and his left leg sinking all the way down. He could hear people crying for help as he pulled himself free.
He quickly moved to a family, finding a man, his wife and a child still in their seats in an upright position.
Since the family could not speak English, Dr. Harvey did his best to motion to them to stay put and wait for help.
"We were triaging by this time into three groups – one that were obviously not going to make it, those that were in really good shape and probably would be okay if they were delayed a little bit – and then we had a group of people that were obviously in need of immediate care, a hanging limb for instance," Dr. Harvey recalled.
Working by the light of flashlights and the glow of flames from the crash, Dr. Harvey and other first responders located the survivors.
After all night at the crash site, Dr. Harvey emerged from the woods at 7 a.m. with what he thought to be the last survivor.
After arriving at the James Paton Hospital by Sikorski S-55 helicopter, Dr. Harvey proceeded to join other staff in attending to the patients.
Due to the severity of their burns — some of the survivors had 80 to 90 percent of their bodies burned — it was difficult inserting intravenous (IV) lines.
"These people were so badly burned that a normal IV through the skin was not possible. They were getting what would be called cut-downs, where you'd have to pick up the vein, put a ligature around it, shove a little tube in it, tie the tube or cannula into the vein so it wouldn't slip out, and then put a dressing around it. This was the type of thing we had to do for most of the patients," he recalled.
It was at 9 a.m. when the hospital learned another patient was coming from the crash scene.
"She apparently had been in the toilet of the tail section of the aircraft. She had been there all night and finally managed to open the door and crawl out," said Dr. Harvey. "She had multiple fractures on both legs and must have had an awful lot of discomfort.
"She managed to reach out and touch a Mountie standing nearby. As I understand it, he was (also) brought to the hospital rather shaken up and requiring tranquilizers – not surprising," said Dr. Harvey.
Flight to Halifax
Since Dr. Harvey had just finished his internship in Halifax, he was assigned the task of contacting the Victoria General (VG) Hospital. The Gander hospital was becoming overwhelmed with the number of crash patients, and they had no orthopedic surgeons or specialists in burn care.
Dr. Alan MacLeod in Halifax agreed to take 12 patients immediately, clearing out a ward even though the VG's new burn unit was not open yet.
Later in the afternoon on Sept. 5, Dr. Harvey accompanied 12 of the crash victims to Halifax.
Dr. Harvey recalls one of the patients being transferred was so badly burned, she was not expected to survive. But rather than separate her from her husband and child, they sent her to Halifax.
The flight to Halifax was not uneventful, as the plane flew through an electrical storm over Lewisporte.
"This did nothing to allay the fears of the (patients), nor myself for that matter," said Dr. Harvey.
During the flight Dr. Harvey administered morphine to some patients and Gravol to one patient who he recalls came to consciousness and became violently ill.
Upon landing at the naval air station at Shearwater in Dartmouth, the patients were transferred by ambulance to VG Hospital.
Dr. Harvey got into an ambulance and attended the patients until they were in the care of other physicians at the VG.
It was 1:30a.m. the following day when Dr. Harvey landed once again in Gander. When he left for the crash the previous morning unsure of what he was facing and a little groggy from the early-morning call, Dr. Harvey recalls he was wearing slip-on shoes and a new sports jacket. He ended up having to throw those clothing items away as he couldn't get the smell of burning flesh and kerosene out of them.
Contact with survivors
In years that followed the crash, Dr. Harvey was in contact with some survivors.
In 1968 he was asked by airport security to come visit a young survivor he had treated. She was in her 20s and from Berlin. She ended up with an amputation below the knee and had become addicted to Demerol.
Also in 1968 he received a call from the father of one of the survivors who had later died.
Most recently he received a letter from a survivor who he transferred to Halifax. She is now 83 years old and is doing well – she also happened to be the same patient who woke up violently ill mid-flight to Halifax.
Dr. Harvey plans to visit this woman sometime in the near future.
"It was quite an emotional letter to receive from someone 50 years after we had met the first time," he said.
"It was an awful night, one I wouldn't want to see again. It's something that I put it out of my mind most of the time," said Dr. Harvey.
It was 10 years before he stopped thinking about that night.
In the 50 years since the Czechoslovakian Air Crash, this is the first time Dr. Harvey has talked about his experience with the media.
He was approached by media on the day of the crash in 1967 when the plane transporting passengers touched down in Nova Scotia.
"There was a bunch of people from the newspapers who wanted to talk to me – I couldn't talk to them," said Dr. Harvey.
Now that he has started talking about that night again, he said the memories are as fresh as ever in his mind.
Dr. Harvey has since retired after spending 48 years working as a general practitioner in Grand Falls-Windsor and two years in Gander, but attending the crash stands out as one of the most horrific things he's witnessed in his career.
"I know I'll never forget that night as long as I live," said Dr. Harvey.
Out of Darkness
A 25-piece exhibit dedicated to the 1967 Czechoslovakian air crash in Gander will be on display at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts through November and December.
"Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the CSA Flight 523 Crash: Out of Darkness" is the name of the exhibit. Bruce Pashak and Janet Langdon of Pashak Langdon Affirmative Common Experience (PLACE) have been working on the project for more than a year.
They took up an artist residency in the Czech Republic to visit with survivors and families of victims to get a better understanding of the tragedy, according to an article posted in the Gander Beacon.
When the exhibit was setting up in Grand Falls-Windsor, Dr. Neil Harvey happened to be at the arts center picking up one of his paintings that had been on display.
Seeing the poster for the exhibit, Dr. Harvey stopped to ask what the exhibit was all about.
During their conversation, the organizer noted it must have been such a terrible night – to which Dr. Harvey responded that it really was.
Intrigued by this statement, the organizer started asking Dr. Harvey questions. Little did they know, Dr. Harvey was an eye-witness to the tragic events being documented by their exhibit.
Dr. Harvey was invited to speak at the opening of the exhibit – the first time he had spoken about his experience and his memories in 49 years.