Field Notes

images via the PanAmerican World Airways Collection, University of Miami Libraries

When a 1952 flight scheduled for New York crashed in the Amazon Rainforest, it kicked off a race to find survivors between a PanAm exec, a Brazilian governor, and a Florida psychic

At three in the morning in the spring of 1952, a PanAm Stratocruiser passenger plane took off from Rio de Janeiro en route to New York City. It disappeared not long after. Survey flights eventually spotted the plane’s charred wreckage deep in the Amazon jungle. Within days, a team of crash investigators lead by a PanAm exec named Humphrey Toomey had landed an amphibious plane on the nearby Araguiai River and set up a staging camp. From there, they intended to traverse 36 miles of dense jungle with a group of indigenous Amazonians, the Carajá, serving as guides.

But Toomey had a surprise in store. A different rescue crew, it turned out, had already parachuted directly into the crash site and taken shelter among the Stratocruiser’s wreckage. Dr. Adhemar de Barros, the eccentric and unpredictable governor of São Paulo, had spotted an opportunity to show his initiative in preparation for his planned campaign for the presidency of Brazil. De Barros, arguing that there might be survivors and that Toomey’s approach by land would take too long, financed an independent group of paratroopers who made a dangerous jump into the jungle clearing.

An infuriated Toomey decided to take the risk of flying a helicopter directly to the crash site and proceeded to set up a camp directly across from his unexpected Brazilian competitors. Fights broke out almost immediately. Meanwhile, Toomey was fielding letters from a mysterious psychic back in Florida who claimed that “seven survivors are alive a short distance from the airplane wreckage in the jungle.” The letter fixated on a particular PanAm exec named Dick Mitchell and warned, “the supposedly friendly Indians with him now, are not friendly.” The psychic refused to divulge their identity, instead signing the letter (which you can read below) with the cryptic tag “298-487-968.”

 “As a student of the occult I have been directed to tell you...”

But the psychic was wrong: there were no survivors. The two teams—Toomey’s PanAm investigators and the São Paulo paratroopers—found common cause as they recovered the personal belongings of passengers. Many paper items were strikingly well-preserved, mutely testifying to lives cut unexpectedly short.

Neither of the search teams had much of a clue about how to survive in the jungle, and their camps were rudimentary at best. The Brazilian paratroopers’ preferred technique for warding off wild animals lurking at the outskirts of their shelters was to throw grenades into the rainforest at random intervals. Before long, Toomey’s team and the paratroopers were forced to evacuate.

Many of the crash victims’ personal effects ended up at PanAm headquarters in Florida. When PanAm went bankrupt in 1991, they became objects in limbo, eventually finding a home at the University of Miami Library. They’re still housed there today, in a yellow manila envelope marked “Jungle Episode 1952.” It was here that Appendix managing editor Felipe Cruz came across them in the fall of 2011, photographed them, and pieced together the narrative that we’ve summarized here.

You can read Cruz’s full article, “Amazonia, 1952: FOUND,” at The Appendix.