Name: Patrick Bonner
Semester: Summer 2011
School: University of Tampa
When I received the acceptance e-mail for a seven week trip to study in Mallorca, I knew that it would consist of many adventures; however, one in particular I will never forget. After telling my mom I’d made my final decision to go to this beautiful island off the coast of Spain, she told me a powerful story about our family. My grandfather, her father, was a pilot in the US Air Force, and when my mother was six years old, he was stationed in Germany with her and her immediate family. Her family planned to be stationed in Erding, Germany for three years. Things, however, did not go according to plan. On June 25, 1960, my grandfather was involved in a plane crash in the mountains of Mallorca. My grandfather, alongside one other American pilot, was training German pilots how to fly a new model of US military fighter jet. Each American pilot had a German pilot onboard. As the aircrafts made their approach over the mountains to land, the two planes collided into the rocky mountainside. Wreckage spread for miles. The initial crash report said that dense fog had inundated the mountains to the point of little to no visibility at the time the planes were attempting to land. My mom’s family was left with little information about the incident and was unable to hold a funeral for six months because of the difficulty of finding his body to ship back to the US.
Fast forward 51 years to my study abroad experience in Spain. With my grandfather’s story in mind, I asked every Majorcan I could if they knew any details about the accident. During my first month in Mallorca, I was only hitting dead ends. A few people remembered hearing about the crash when they were children but didn’t know the exact location. My teacher Magdalena tried to help me find information and even went out of her way to look for documents at a library containing the history of all the plane crashes in Mallorca. Again, it was a dead end, and the section for 1960 was blank. After all my efforts, my teacher’s efforts, and my host padre’s efforts, I still had no promising leads. Magdalena said her best guess was the village of Soller because of the vast mountain ranges there, but this was still just a guess. I was lucky enough to have my older sister visit me for a week in Mallorca at the beginning of July. On her last day, we went on an excursion to Soller with the CIEE group. We were still unsure if this was really the place where my grandfather died, but we were determined to see it through. We left for Soller that morning by train and rode about an hour through the countryside. When we arrived, my teachers began to show us the city and told us that the plan was to return to Palma at 2:30. By 2:30, we still hadn’t come any closer to finding information about the crash. We decided to stay after the scheduled time and continue searching for answers. We were told the government ajuntament building would have documents with the answers we needed, but when we arrived, it had closed for the day. A bit discouraged, we stopped to rest and regroup outside of a small café called Bar Nadal. After sitting for a few minutes, I went inside and asked the girl working behind the bar, Andrea, if she knew the story of the crash. She spoke little to no English, but I knew she understood what I was trying to tell her. That’s when she told me to hold on. She went and got her father, the café’s owner, who was the first person I talked to that truly knew everything. After explaining why we were there, he walked both me and my sister out into the street, pointed to a mountain in the distance with telephone towers on top and said that the crash site was there. I was beside myself. For the first time, we realized how close we were. The problem, he said, was that the crash site was on private property enclosed by large gates that could only be opened with a key. We immediately asked if it was possible to get there and how we could go about getting the key. The owner of the bar knew the property owner and called him twice. No answer. After multiple failed attempts to reach him, my sister and I sat back down to regroup. An older man in his mid fifties named Juan who’d been chain smoking outside the whole time told us that when he was 8 years old, he went on a field trip with his class to the crash site and thought he remembered how to get there. He said he’d be happy to take us, but his car wouldn’t be able to make it up the mountain. The face of the mountain was steep, and we needed the right car to make it to the top. Meanwhile, I tried calling the property owner again. We decided to try him on our phone, hoping he’d answer an international call out of pure curiosity. After 6 long rings, he answered. I tried to get a few sentences out, but I quickly realized I need to hand the phone to someone who could better explain our situation in Spanish. I handed my phone to Juan, and the two men had a long conversation in Majorcian that we could hardly understand.
After getting off the phone, it was obvious that Juan did not have good news. He told us that it would be impossible to get the keys that night. At that point, it was already 6 o’clock, and in addition to all the other factors against us, we were now fighting daylight. Andrea, the girl who’d helped us originally, said I could go with her on Sunday to the site. As much as I appreciated the offer, I knew it wouldn’t have been the same without my sister. Plus, going on this journey together meant the world to us both. We sat outside in silence as we waited for the next train back to Palma. I remember watching as another one of the owner’s daughters came to the bar with her two infant children. They were playing outside, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the things the babies were doing despite the deep disappointment my sister and I felt. Andrea stayed positive the entire time. She explained our situation to her older sister, and that’s when she said that when she got off work, she might be able to use her sister’s car to take us to the site.
Shortly thereafter, my sister said she was going to take a picture of the mountain the restaurant owner had shown us. It was the best she thought we’d be able to do at that point. She walked out into the street with her camera. While she was taking photos, I saw a man walk up to Andrea’s older sister and hand her a key, smile, nod and walk away without exchanging words. I knew immediately that it was the key we had been waiting for. I couldn’t believe it would get me and my sister to the place I had pictured in my head so many times. However, we still had to wait for Andrea to get off work so she, Juan, and her boyfriend Pedro, a mechanic born and raised in Soller, could take us up the mountain.
Andrea’s older sister was gracious enough to let us use her car for the journey, and Juan drove because he was the only person who knew the site’s exact whereabouts. The mountain was steep and curvy. Halfway up, Andrea got so sick from the turns that we had to stop the car and take a break. We drove up the one-lane road for about an hour; Juan furiously chain smoked as we all tried to learn more about each other. Finally, we reached the gates. After going through them, the road became very narrow and rocky with no shoulder preventing the car from falling off the mountainside. We drove about another hour and finally reached the top of the mountain. We parked the car and got out. There was a woman standing outside the building at the top. She was holding a puppy and looking over the mountains. Juan explained the situation to her, and she quickly showed us a piece of the plane near the building she worked in. Then, she pointed us in the direction of more wreckage. At the top there was one house with telephone towers and satellite dishes surrounding it. The largest satellite dish was broken and every few minutes the bent metal would make a loud, creaky noise. As I paced around, it felt like I was in god’s kingdom. The view was unbelievable. The jagged mountains sat to my left and right, and in between them was the village of Soller. The houses and buildings looked like tiny Monopoly pieces from where we stood. Because we were on the highest mountain in the range, clouds were passing through our bodies every few minutes. It was the cleanest air I have ever breathed. We walked a little further only seeing small pieces of mangled metal until Juan led us to one of the plane’s wings. It was unbelievable to see such a huge piece of metal set on the rock face of this mountain. The wing was still surprisingly intact considering it had been exposed to the elements for over 50 years. We all looked at the wing for a while and Pedro helped us rip pieces off we could take back. We took pictures of our findings and got photos with Andrea, Juan, and Pedro who we later deemed our ‘Spanish angels.’ After about 10 minutes of walking around in silence, I began to tell Andrea how grateful I was for her help. That’s when she told me and my sister that her grandfather died before she was born, so she understood why it was so important to us to find this place. She started to cry, and I was again touched by her kindness. While looking around the site, we experienced the dense fog that came without warning. These conditions were likely similar to those the day my grandfather crashed. I felt scared for how he must have felt with the heavy fog and limited visibility from his plane. Maybe it was my grandfather’s way of letting us know he was there with us.
Still in disbelief that we had found the plane and overcome by the beauty of the view, we sat on the rocks and talked about how incredible the moment was for all of us. I was so happy to have met these kind people and experience this adventure with my sister. When I talked to my mom about what happened she cried, but it was clear that she cried tears of joy. She said that we had accomplished a dream of hers, and she no longer felt the need to visit the place her father had died 51 years earlier because we had seen it for her. I will never forget her telling me that she was happy her father died in a place with such kind, generous people like Andrea, Juan and Pedro. The amount of coincidences involved will never cease to amaze me. My initial decision to study in Mallorca, the fact that my sister chose to come visit during the time of the group’s field trip to Soller, the people we met in the bar and Juan’s knowledge of the site’s location are just a few of the factors that are increasingly hard to explain. I have experienced luck, chance and coincidence, but this experience was so far beyond all of these forces that I have no word to explain its depth or magnificence. My time in Mallorca and this adventure with my sister will surely be engraved in my memory forever.