On Monday, May 13, 1957 at 8:30 a.m., Lewis Magruder took off from a dusty airstrip in Olveston village near Montserrat’s west coast. His single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza was a six-seater but Magruder was flying solo. His destination was Puerto Rico but he first headed in the opposite direction toward Waterwork Estate – about three miles southeast of Olveston. Magruder had a routine of “buzzing” the estate, which was home to the Hollender family. He would fly low, wave good-bye and sometimes snap photos from his lofty perch.
Since arriving on Montserrat four years earlier, Magruder had earned somewhat of a cult following and locals would shout his name as he zipped overhead. In those days a passing airplane was rare for the tiny British colony and attracted rapt attention. Magruder was an experienced pilot and United States Navy veteran. But even the most skilled aviators are not immune to errors or the whims of Mother Nature. Also, Magruder had only one functioning eye due to an injury he sustained some years earlier.
On this particular morning, Magruder faced another adversary: wind gusts typical of the Belham Valley that cradled the estate. As he made his customary jaunt over Waterwork, the plane clipped a palm tree. The light aircraft careened, grazed the estate house, slammed to the turf and flipped, losing one of its wings.
Kate Hollender, wife of estate owner Paul Hollender, heard the racket and rushed outside. Estate workers also ran toward the scene. Some children who were on their way to Cork Hill School – located about a mile south – heard the crash and raced to the site, crossing Belham River in the process. Police and first responders arrived as news spread throughout the 39-square-mile island.
Magruder was pronounced dead and his body was transported to Glendon Hospital for postmortem. Cause of death was listed simply as “hemorrhage from lung and multiple injuries.” That afternoon Magruder’s body was flown to Puerto Rico, his residence at the time. The ace pilot’s life was over at age 40.
Many Montserratians mourned, even those who never met him personally. Some wept openly. They grieved his loss but also felt a semblance of guilt that his demise occurred on their island. They had heard stories on the radio about plane crashes around the world. But this one hit home. Magruder’s last flight was Montserrat’s first air fatality.
Five days after Magruder’s death, the Montserrat Observer published a tribute by Reverend C.L. Carty, an Anguilla-born Methodist minister who spent several years in Montserrat and knew Magruder well. Carty helped explain how Magruder arrived on the Emerald Isle.
WHO WAS LEWIS MAGRUDER?
Lewis Wallace Magruder was born March 1, 1917 in Landover, Maryland, U.S.A. He joined the Navy after high school and in 1942 during the midst of World War II he went to Puerto Rico as an aviation engineer. In 1945 he married Camelia Davila of San Germán, a city in southwest Puerto Rico. The couple had two boys, Lewis Jr. and Joseph.
Magruder also ran a flight school and in 1947 he formed West Indies Airways, a small air taxi service that transported mail, cargo and passengers. As a side job he snapped aerial photos for prospectors, estates and government agencies.
DELISLE MEETS MAGRUDER
Frank Delisle – who eventually started Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) – arrived in Montserrat in 1945 from his native St. Kitts and worked for Montserrat Company managing a fruit plantation in Olveston.
In 1948, Delisle’s wife experienced severe complications while in labor with the couple’s third child. She required a C-section. Delisle wanted to take her to Antigua for the delicate procedure, but travel to and from Montserrat was solely by sea. A 27-mile boat trip to Antigua would take hours. Delisle’s wife eventually delivered a healthy baby girl but Delisle decided at that point he would do everything to ensure Montserrat added an airline service.
Jeanne Delisle-Briggs, another of Delisle’s daughters, says her father traveled to White Plains, N.Y., to take flying lessons and obtain his pilot’s license. An airstrip was cut in Olveston but it was reportedly only about 800 feet long and featured an awkward decline at the takeoff end. Planes would moreso “fall off” the strip rather than take off, according to one witness. The unpaved strip also generated a cloud of dust during takeoffs and landings. Delisle needed an aviation adviser. A mutual friend highly recommended Magruder.
ARRIVING IN STYLE
In 1953, Magruder touched down in Olveston in a Cessna 170. He helped Delisle launch a limited flight service in 1954 but they realized the Olveston strip was not sustainable, especially after a botched takeoff destroyed the engine of one of the planes.
The Olveston strip was eventually closed for commercial flying and a search began for an ideal airfield. When choosing an airport site, many factors are considered, including wind, obstructions, visibility, soil and drainage. Montserrat’s hilly terrain made this a challenge.
A British firm of engineers began surveying Trant’s Estate in the east but reportedly quit after their demand for more money was turned down. According to Reverend Carty, Magruder stepped in and conducted extensive aerial and ground work at no cost to the government. In late 1954 the site was approved as the home of Montserrat’s new airport.
The airfield was named in honor of Sir Kenneth Blackburne, then governor of the Leeward Islands. When Mr. Blackburne flew in for the official opening in October of 1956, Magruder was his pilot. That year also marked the official opening of LIAT – with Magruder as lead pilot the first few weeks. The Olveston strip remained open but only as a private airfield, thus the reason Magruder took off from there that fateful morning in 1957.
Due to his association with Delisle, “Mac” made many friends in Montserrat, including a family close to the Delisles: the Hollenders. Other than Paul Hollender and wife Kate, he met their children Basil, Brian and Betty. While in Montserrat, Magruder often stayed with the Delisle family but also lodged with the Hollenders.
Waterwork Estate, nestled on the southern slopes of Montserrat’s Centre Hills, is a prominent and unique plantation that goes back to the 17th century. A flowing spring ran through the estate, yielding natural irrigation. Waterwork was a fertile harvesting spot for ground provisions – especially dasheen and sweet potatoes – and rare local crops such as watercress. Even rice was cultivated at one time. In earlier years the estate grew sugar cane and produced sugar, molasses, syrup and alcohol.
Folks who lived and worked in the area said Magruder would always fly over the estate and wave good-bye to the Hollenders when leaving the island. Delisle’s daughter Jeanne says Magruder would also fly over their home in Olveston and bid farewell.
Brian Hollender was 10 years old on the tragic day but remembers it well.
“I was at school when it happened,” he says. “A few days earlier my mother told Mac she had a bad dream and that he should not fly [low] over the estate. He actually died in my mother’s arms.”
MEMORIES OF ‘MAC’
Sixty-five years after the tragedy, many still recall Magruder fondly.
Delisle’s daughter Jeanne says Magruder always brought treats when he arrived from Puerto Rico, including dozens of bottles of Coca-Cola, hot dogs, American bread and other novelty items that were not available in Montserrat.
“Coca-Cola was only in the glass bottle at that time,” she says. “He would bring them to Montserrat and share with all his friends. After we drank them he would take the bottles back to Puerto Rico. When he crashed, a bunch of those empty Coke bottles were on the plane and they shattered and [caused some of his injuries].”
Johnny Howes, a mere lad at the time of the crash, says Magruder attended his birthday party the day before the incident.
“The party was at Carr’s Bay,” says Howes, a longtime boat captain and tour guide. “We roasted marshmallows. He hugged me and told me it was the best birthday party he had ever been to. Could you imagine as a child hearing that and then the next day you hear he’s dead?”
The Right Honourable Austin Bramble, Montserrat’s Chief Minister from 1970 to 1978, met Magruder in 1956. Bramble, who was working for an oil refinery in Curacao, returned to Montserrat briefly that year. He took a flight from Willemstad to St. Kitts, and Magruder then flew him to Montserrat.
“It was just me and him on the plane,” says Bramble, now 91. “He seemed like a nice fellow. We landed at Blackburne. At that time it was just a grass strip.”
Ironically, in 1997 Blackburne Airport was renamed to honor William H. Bramble, Austin Bramble’s father and Montserrat’s first Chief Minister.
‘HE LOVED THIS ISLAND’
About eight hours after Magruder’s crash, a 16-seater, four-engine Heron De Havilland aircraft landed safely at Blackburne to the cheers of spectators. It was the largest aircraft at that point in time to land in Montserrat. It was a seminal moment that Magruder helped bring to fruition but one he sadly missed.
“Montserrat owes him a tremendous debt,” Carty wrote in his tribute. “He loved this island and its people.”
Magruder’s death devastated Frank Delisle, who not only lost his best pilot and business partner but a close friend.
“He was heartbroken,” Jeanne says of her father, who eventually forged on and transformed LIAT into the leading air carrier in the Caribbean. Delisle passed away in 2002.
On Wednesday, May 15, 1957, Magruder was buried at Puerto Rico National Cemetery in Bayamón with full military honors. Eleven years later his wife Camelia died at age 46 and was laid to rest next to him.
Magruder’s damaged plane was stored in an old shed in Olveston for a while, then dumped into a nearby ravine that is now rife with volcanic ash.
On September 17, 1965 a Pan Am jet crashed at Chances Peak in southern Montserrat, claiming 30 lives. Due to its magnitude, that incident relegated the Magruder crash to a virtual footnote locally.
A monument was erected in the Plymouth public cemetery to honor the Pan Am victims.
Sadly, there is no memorial on Montserrat for Lewis Magruder.
Click here to read Part 2 about how the tragedy affected Magruder’s family in Puerto Rico.
Aircraft fatalities on Montserrat
|9/17/65||Boeing 707||Chances Peak||30 (Click for story and list)|
|3/7/78||Cessna||Blackburne||Denise Apperley, Jose Chovino, M. Paul Canavy|
|5/31/81||Piper Aztec||Blackburne||Orel Payne|
|5/3/86||Cessna||Bottomless Ghaut||Len Kocen, Pat Kocen, Bradley King|