Lewis Magruder Jr. recalls how father’s fatal crash in Montserrat forever changed his family

Lewis Magruder's eldest son Butch remembers the tragic day 65 years ago when he learned that his father's plane crashed in Montserrat. He gives details of the aftermath and how his life unfolded.

4
2085
All photos courtesy Magruder family
Lewis Magruder Jr. became a pilot just like his father and was also a helicopter crew chief with the National Guard.

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to our story published March 21, 2022 on Lewis Magruder’s 1957 plane crash, the first aircraft fatality in Montserrat history.

Lewis “Butch” Magruder Jr. knew something was wrong. As he stepped off the school bus on May 13, 1957 and approached his home in the Obrero section of Santurce, Puerto Rico, he saw several family members standing on the porch. A few others were inside the house. Butch was puzzled. It was a Monday afternoon. It wasn’t a holiday. Why were so many relatives there? They weren’t exchanging pleasantries or engaged in animated conversation. It was quite jarring, even for a 10-year-old.

“Everybody was looking sad,” he says. “I went in the house and saw my mom sitting there with her eyes red. She said to me, ‘Butch . . . your dad.’ That’s all she said. She didn’t have to say any more. I just went to my room and cried.”

Butch’s dad was Lewis Magruder, the pilot who crashed in Montserrat earlier that day. Magruder was flying low over Waterwork Estate in a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza when he clipped a palm tree. He had a routine of waving good-bye to the Hollender family before heading back home to Puerto Rico.

Magruder had been visiting Montserrat since 1953. The aviation expert was brought to the Emerald Isle by Frank Delisle, who wanted to establish Montserrat’s first air-transit service. Magruder helped Delisle launch Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) three years later. He also played a crucial role in the selection of Trant’s Estate as the site of Blackburne Airport, which also opened in 1956. “Mac” made many friends in Montserrat and became a beloved figure. Locals would shout his name when he flew overhead.

Magruder was born in Maryland and moved to Puerto Rico in 1942 while in the United States Navy. He married Puerto Rico native Camelia Davila in 1945 and the couple had two sons: Lewis Jr. – whom they nicknamed “Butch” – and Joseph.

Lewis “Butch” Magruder Jr. poses on an airplane wing, circa 1956.

Butch and his dad were very close. Magruder and business partner H.G. Wolff operated West Indies Airways, a small air taxi service, and Butch would sometimes accompany his father when he delivered mail and cargo around the region.

“He would show me how to fly,” Butch says. “He told me how to keep a certain altitude and things like that. One time we flew over St. Croix to take some [aerial] photos. He opened the window and told me to guide the plane to the left while he took pictures.”

When Puerto Rico International Airport (now Luis Muñoz Marín Airport) was inaugurated on May 22, 1955, Butch and his dad flew there from nearby Isla Grande – formerly Puerto Rico’s main airport. “We flew in a Mooney Mite plane,” Butch says of the light single-engine craft. “It only had one seat so I had to sit on his lap.”

PAYING TRIBUTE

Following the crash in Montserrat, Magruder’s body was flown to Puerto Rico that afternoon. Two days after, on Wednesday, May 15, 1957, he was buried at Puerto Rico National Cemetery in Bayamón.

“I remember the funeral,” Butch says. “They had the flag on his coffin and they folded it up and gave it to us. They had a 21-gun salute. Some of the pilots who worked for my dad did a flyover.”

Butch says his mother grieved for her husband and was never the same. Butch, his mother and brother Joe – who was 5 years old – eventually moved in with Camelia’s mother.

“Life changed totally for my mom,” he says. “She dedicated her life to taking care of us.”

Lewis Magruder and wife Camelia.

As for West Indies Airways, Butch says a family friend took over management for a while, and eventually the business was gone. There was no family settlement that he knows of.

“I was a kid so I’m not sure what happened,” he says. “My mom never got involved with the business after my dad died. I don’t think she wanted anything to do with airplanes because it would remind her about what happened to him.”

Butch had developed an interest in flying due to his experiences with his dad. He thought he might at least inherit one of his dad’s planes, but it never came to pass. As he entered his late teens he wanted to pursue a career in aviation but knew it would worry his mother, so he didn’t. Camelia never remarried after her husband’s death. In fact, Butch says his mother never even had a boyfriend.

On November 17, 1968, following a brief hospitalization, Camelia Magruder died at age 46. She had endured several health issues, but the underlying cause of her death could not be diagnosed medically: a broken heart.

“My mom was in the same funeral home where my dad was,” Butch says. “Before they closed the coffin I kissed her on the forehead. She was so cold. When I think of my mother I think of someone warm. At my dad’s funeral, when I saw him in the coffin he had a bump on his forehead [from the crash]. To this day, I can’t go to a funeral if there’s an open coffin. I stay outside. I don’t want to remember anyone else like that.”

Lewis Magruder is shown with one of the cameras he used to take aerial photos.

THE SON ALSO RISES

After losing both parents at a young age, Butch and Joe persevered with the help of their extended family. In 1966, Butch enlisted in the U.S. Army and served until 1972. Around the same time he earned his pilot’s license. But unlike his dad he didn’t fly for a living. He flew for fun, mostly fishing trips. On weekends he would rent a Cessna, and he, Joe and a couple friends would fly to Mona island – between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

For his main job, Butch worked for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority for 33 years. In 1978 he joined the National Guard aviation unit. The following year, Hurricane David battered the Dominican Republic. A helicopter team featuring a pilot, co-pilot and Butch as crew chief delivered food and supplies to villages that were inaccessible due to mudslides.

The team also airlifted patients and assisted in repairing power lines. In 1998 when Hurricane Georges caused $3 billion in damages in Puerto Rico, the crew delivered electrical poles to the mountains of central Puerto Rico near Arecibo. As the helicopter hovered, Butch – while strapped to a monkey harness – would look downward from the open side door and instruct the pilot, who could not see directly below, where to place the poles. It was an extremely dangerous undertaking that required precision.

Butch’s brother Joe took a different career route. For more than 30 years he has worked for a food distribution company and is now one of the “head honchos” there, Butch says. Joe and wife Nery have been married for more than 40 years. Their daughter Kathy is a physician.

THE ‘CYCLE’ CONTINUES

Sixty-five years after the crash, Butch still has fond memories of his father, such as family outings and hanging out at Isla Grande Airport, where his dad’s aviation business was based. Joe has only faint memories of his dad. Once a month the family visits the gravesite of Lewis and Camelia, who were both interred in the same plot.

“It was hard growing up without my dad,” Butch says. “You feel more secure when you have your dad. And it was hard seeing other kids with their dads. But I had my grandmother and my uncles. I also became very close with my wife’s dad.”

In his personal life, Butch enjoys riding motorcycles and is a member of the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA). He has not piloted a Cessna in more than two decades. Joe also likes motorcycles, and the brothers still get together for weekend rides.

Lewis Magruder, above, was mainly a pilot but also liked motorcycles. His sons Butch, below left, and Joe (pictured with wife Nery) still enjoy riding, mostly on the weekends.

Butch has never visited Montserrat. In the process of working and raising a family he never got around to seeing the island that became a second home to his father.

“I might still go there one day,” he says. “One of my daughters loves to travel and she suggested that we make it a family trip.”

Now retired, Butch’s main joy comes from his family. Butch and wife Maggie celebrated their 52nd anniversary in January. They have three children and three grandchildren (Sophia, Evan and Isabella). Their eldest daughter Yadira is a Certified Public Accountant, and their other daughter Jessica is an Emergency Room doctor. Their son is a musician and music producer who holds a master’s degree in communications.

He has a familiar name.

Lewis Magruder III.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The resurrection of Mr. Magruder, the pilot. Historical events during my childhood growing up in Montserrat. Deeply indebted to you Edwin L. Martin for bringing them back to life, for researching and elucidating the circumstances and chain of events behind them. A sad story, but you have made it palatable and a joy to read.
    Thank you.

  2. I remember hearing my grannie speaking about a pilot called Magruder. Thank you for giving us the history on this fatal tragedy.
    Keep up the good works.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here