Art doll

Fatal plane crash in Snowdonia that killed 23 people but left the child’s doll unharmed

Seven decades after the disaster, Richard Pritchard still remembers the smell from his bedroom window in Caernarfon.

“I woke up one morning and the stench of aviation fuel was everywhere,” he said.

“I looked outside and the whole yard was full of engine and fuselage pieces.

“Two large wings were supported, dwarfing the 15-foot walls of the courtyard.”

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Then aged six, he had witnessed the immediate aftermath of the second deadliest commercial plane crash in Wales.

January 10 was the 70th anniversary of the disaster. Among those of a certain age, the horrific loss of life, in a mountain bog in Snowdonia, still looms large, memories of that dreadful night have passed into local folklore.

Twenty-three people were killed, including the three crew members. The bodies of 11 were never found, buried deep in the Cwm Edno bog, south of Moel Siabod.

Tragically, the only items that survived intact were a shoe and a child’s doll.

They belonged to four-year-old Melody, daughter of Capt Michael Laker, a pilot flying as a passenger with his wife.

The discovery of the doll, as much as anything else, “greatly upset” the hundreds of rescuers who reached the crash site.

The RIP memorial at the crash site

The disaster involved an Aer Lingus Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft called “St Kevin”. It was en route from Northolt Aerodrome, near London, to Dublin, Ireland.

Flying through the teeth of driving rain, the plane’s final message, received by Nevin radio station, south of Anglesey, reported the flight was proceeding as normal at the forecast height of 6,500ft.

Three minutes later the plane was heard by locals passing over Llyn Gwynant, near Beddgelert.

At 7.10pm two people phoned Caernarfon Police to report the sound of a crash, after seeing a large glow in the sky over the mountains.

The iconic Lone Tree at Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, looking towards Snowdonia

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When the first rescue team arrived on the scene, after battling torrential rain during their hour-long ascent in darkness from Nant Gwynant, they found a scene of utter devastation.

Most of the passengers had been sucked into the bog after the impact, along with parts of the smoking wreckage.

Only the small child’s shoe and doll had been ejected from the burning plane.

By midnight, more than 100 police, soldiers and RAF personnel had arrived at the scene, working by torchlight to extract the bodies from the bog.

It was Aer Lingus’ first fatal accident and the carrier’s second deadliest.

A Dakota plane similar to the one that crashed in Snowdonia on January 10, 1952, killing 23 people
A Dakota plane similar to the one that crashed in Snowdonia on January 10, 1952, killing 23 people

Mr Pritchard recalled how, a short time later, his father – also called Richard – was summoned to the operation to assist in the recovery operation.

With his two brothers Charles and Bob, he ran Pritchard Brothers, a furniture delivery business with a yard next to Porth yr Aur, the western gateway to Caernarfon which since 1854 has been home to the Royal Welsh Yacht Club.

During World War II Pritchard Bros was employed by the National Gallery in London to move its art treasures to Manod Quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd.

Later, the company was used by 20th Century Fox to film the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, shot in Nantmor, near Beddgelert.

“The studio found their trucks too wide and too long to navigate the narrow roads,” said Richard Pritchard Jr., who still lives at the Caernarfon yard of his childhood.

“Because my father and uncles had built their own wagons and flatbeds, they were narrower and suitable for local roads.

“The studio has reserved the eight, including two without motors. They were towed to site and used for makeup and wardrobe.

The crash site at Cwm Edno near Llyn Gwynant with the aircraft wreckage still visible
The crash site at Cwm Edno near Llyn Gwynant with the aircraft wreckage still visible

As owners of one of the largest fleets in the region, Pritchard Bros were ideally placed to help recover the wreckage of the downed Aer Lingus plane.

The three brothers were told that it had to be done quickly.

“I imagine they didn’t want a member of the public to go to the site to see what happened,” Richard said.

The wreck was shipped to Caernarfon yard, which sparked one of his earliest and most vivid memories. Where he went from there, he doesn’t remember.

On January 17, while recovery efforts were still underway, the crash site was dedicated with a funeral service.

Twelve of the victims are buried at Llanbeblig, Caernarfon
Twelve of the victims are buried at Llanbeblig, Caernarfon

A commission of inquiry was held three months later, in April, which was unable to determine the exact cause of the accident.

He concluded that the plane had encountered a “powerful downdraft” on the lee side of Snowdon which “forced the plane to descend into an area of ​​very severe turbulence”, causing the “loss of control” of the pilot, Capt Keohane.

In the final stages of the dive, part of the starboard wing separated and landed approximately 200 meters from the rest of the aircraft.

Names of 12 victims buried together at Llanbeblig Cemetery
Names of 12 victims buried together at Llanbeblig Cemetery

Most of the passengers were Irish. Others included a German teenager going to live with her grandmother in Dublin.

Also among the victims were a 22-year-old South African medical student and a 24-year-old music student at the Royal Irish Academy.

Only 12 bodies were found. They were buried in a common grave in Llanbeblig Cemetery, Caernarfon.

Later, Snowdonia National Park installed a slate plaque commemorating the disaster on a rocky outcrop near the crash site.

For years, the rear part of the aircraft remained visible in the bog, although this was also later removed.

It is said that, from time to time, crash debris still reappears on the surface.

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