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Meet the sole survivor of the Billerica plane crash

When an Ireland-bound cargo plane crashed near the 99 Restaurant in Billerica with eight people aboard, everyone died except one man. For crash details and photo galleries, see the other article. This one is about the sole survivor, Richard Creer from England, a WWII veteran of the Royal Air Force.

1980 Billerica, MA plane crash photo 13
Rachel Goding photo

By Paul Creer

February 16, 1980 — Something flashed across the TV on the late evening news. A plane had gone down in Massachusetts. The screen showed a picture of Father’s airplane, the Redcoat. The shock of seeing that picture stays with me to this day. Knowing it’s rare for someone to survive a plane crash, my immediate thought was that Father had died. Trying to put into words the shock of suddenly losing a parent is extremely challenging. Shock, horror, disbelief, trauma and grief are all rolled into one.

This is the actual plane that crashed. The registration was G-BRAC, the last three letters being the initials of Richard Alfred Creer, the one survivor.

Then the reporters said they’d gotten word of one possible survivor. What were the odds? Could it be Father? Yes it was! This brought a host of emotions: instant relief that he was the survivor; grave concern about the severity of injuries and long-term disabilities; sadness for those who died; and also niggling questions about why he survived when he and the crew members were sitting right next to each other. We could not comprehend this. Someone was looking out for him that day for sure.

Richard Creer’s seat is the swiveling one. His last memory was grabbing the airplane throttle.

My family was scattered all around at the time. Mother lived in Poole, Dorset. Michael lived in Yeovil, Somerset. Paul and Angela lived in Southampton, Hampshire. Maureen lived in Brisbane, Australia. But suddenly, we knew had to come together in a big hurry. Nobody slept that night as we desperately tried to get information from Redcoat Air Cargo. The next day, with the help of the Redcoat staff and the American Embassy, Mother and Michael got a flight to Boston. Maureen flew from Australia as fast as possible. Paul and Angela stayed in the UK as the “anchor point” for whatever was going to happen next.

Bob Hunt Billerica, MA plane crash 1980 photo 20
Bob Hunt photo

Once in the USA, the authorities took us under their wing and eased our trauma with transports to the crash site and hospital visits. The local community was fantastic, with cards and gifts arriving daily at the hospital and hotel. Local residents also took my family into their homes and drove us back and forth to the hospital, a welcome break from the bedside vigil. One little old Englishwoman, 84 years old, came all the way from Boston with Kleenex, chocolates and materials for writing letters to relatives: paper, envelopes and stamps. Another Englishwoman from Methuen, 81 years old, brought some books for the family.

One of Father’s physiotherapists gave him a cactus plant because she thought it reflected his tough personality. The medical staff at Lowell General Hospital did an incredible job with father’s injuries:

  • Two broken legs
  • Broken arm
  • Perforated lung
  • Broken ribs
  • Fractured skull

Dr. Benoit and the medical team used metal plates and screws to hold Father’s arms and legs together. He should have been called the bionic man. Through the years-long recovery, Dr. Benoit always sent Mother and Father a Christmas card, which they cherished.

Richard Creer Burlington Retro
Mother, Father and Maureen celebrating his move from ICU to recovery ward.

At the crash site, Mother and Maureen and Michael found Father’s wristwatch! It was special to him. He’d bought it in Japan while he was working for BOAC (now British Airways). It was an early “automatic” that needed no battery or winding, a rarity in the 1960s. The glass face was broken and the clock had stopped at the moment of impact. Michael sent it to Seiko UK, where the company repaired it pro bono as a gift to Father.

After many weeks in the hospital, Father recovered enough to be flown home to the UK. His daughter, Maureen, a trained ICU nurse, was thrilled to be his nursing assistant on the flight home on a British Airways plane equipped with a special stretcher-carrier. He went to Southampton General Hospital.

Two months later, he returned to his home to Poole!

But he was still in rough shape. We modified the home to allow better mobility. At least he could sleep in his old bed and enjoy Mother’s cooking once again, and sit by his beloved garden pond. And the grandchildren could visit him. All of this was a huge help.

Richard Creer Burlington Retro 2
Arriving home in Poole.

“What happens if I pull this way, Grandad?”

Because he had served in the Royal Air Force in WWII, he could attend a federal aircrew rehab in Surrey. Woodworking became a good exercise to restore dexterity. Father made a wood bird table that Angela used in her garden for many years. He recovered most of his movement, but not enough to regain his flying license, so he was forced to retire from flying.

But not from driving! He bought a new car to restore his independence and freedom. He was determined to travel back to Boston to personally thank the people who saved his life.

Behind the wheel again!
Mother and Father visiting Lowell General Hospital to say thanks.
Lowell General (the emergency area is dubbed St. John’s) newsletter entry about the Creers’ visit.
The crash scene, and the sole escapee.

Michael now lived in the US and held a pilot’s license, so he took Father on a flight in a two-seater Cessna 172 to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodome in New York. Imagine boarding a little plane in the US after his trauma here. Now that is courage.

He went even further. He took up windsurfing, happy to be able to lift the board onto the car roof and head to the beach. Poole Harbour is very shallow, so you can step on and off the board, making it ideal for beginners. He did suffer a loss, however. Remember that wristwatch his family found at the crash site, and repaired for him? Well, he lost it while windsurfing.

Mother and Father spend many more years together, celebrating their 50th and 60th anniversaries with children and often grandchildren as family flew to the UK from the US and Australia. And, of course, he flew all over the place to see everyone else on birthdays and Christmas.

He continued to volunteer at his local church, chauffeuring the oldest members on Sunday mornings. He was awarded the Diocesan Medal by the Bishop of Plymouth in a church ceremony honoring his work. This was a very proud moment.

Wearing the medal.

Father finally had to leave the home he had designed himself all those years ago, and move into assisted living. Then he had a stroke. The family still took him to the local pub for a pint, however! Father had trouble communicating, but you could tell he enjoyed the company and the stories we told.

Father died in 2003 at 82 years old. Mother lived another seven years and died at 92. The whole family is grateful to everyone involved in Father’s rescue, treatment and recovery. We feel privileged that so many folks remember the incident and share memories, thoughts and pictures. We can’t forget that seven families had their lives tragically changed forever on that February day, so we count ourselves as “The Lucky Family.” Father was able to live another 23 years with his wife Mary, four children and seven grandchildren.

Richard and Mary with children (L-R) Paul, Angela, Maureen and Michael.

4 thoughts on “Meet the sole survivor of the Billerica plane crash Leave a comment

  1. I remember the crash very well. I had friends on Lexington Road in Billerica. So happy he continued to live a wonderful life.

  2. I worked at Logan Airport for the company that serviced this aircraft just prior to its departure and had met the crew

  3. RIP to those that perished. And a healthy long life to the survivor. At the time I was socializing and drinking beer at the 99 Restaurant,so I knew the area. About 2-3 months after the plane crash I went to the crash site, all the big pieces of the plane had been cleaned up, but many pieces almost round little bigger than half dollar littered the crash site. The only thing I thought about all the small pieces, is as the plane skidded on to of the trees, the branches cut and pulled them out of the fuselage. It was very solemn being there at the time.

  4. Thank you so much for publishing this follow-up summary, Paul!
    I remember that day vividly and although I wasn’t part of the rescue and recovery activities I am glad that I happened to have my camera with me on that day and able to capture and share the aftermath of this tragic event (putting pictures to words…). I’ll be happy to share the pictures with you directly if you’d like, just let me know.
    I am so happy that your father had a good (albeit long) recovery and went on to live nearly a quarter century with his friends and family!

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