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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.