Voices from the Grave: The girl that fell from the sky
By Kathi Kresol
The Frederickson family was very excited on that August morning in 1928. Arthur and Edith were the parents of three children; Roland, 15 years old, Rhoda, 13 years old and Reynold who was 11 at the time. The whole family had been invited by Edith’s brothers, Arthur and Carl Alfred Sall to the join them for a special day.
Carl Alfred, or Al as the family called him, was 35 in 1928. He had been interested in aviation his entire life. He worked as a pattern designer at his family business the Sall Brothers Company. The business was very successful in 1928 and this allowed Al to pursue his passion for flying. He took classes in Chicago and spent time flying at the Machesney Airport with Fred Machesney himself. Al just passed his private pilot license and that allowed him to take passengers up for the first time.
Al invited his brother Arthur who was 34 and his sister Edith’s family to join him for a flight in the biplane he had just purchased. The whole family met the brothers at the Machesney Airport. Edith was very pregnant with her fourth child and would not be flying with her brother on that day. Her husband, Arthur decided to stay with her and just let the children go up in the plane. No one had any premonition of the tragedy that was about to take place.
The plane could only hold 4 passengers at a time so Roland and Reynold were chosen to go first. All went well as they flew around for about 15 minutes. The boys were excited and thrilled about the flight and rushed off the plane to tell their parents. In fact, Reynold was jumping up and down and wanted to go back up with his sister. His parents calmed him as Rhoda made her way to the plane for her trip.
The flight went well and Al was circling back toward the airport when disaster struck. They were flying over an oat field on the west bank of the Rock River near Latham Park. Their altitude was about 1,000 feet when the plane stalled and began a flat spin. Though Al had handled this type of emergency in previous flights, for some reason on this day, he could not pull the plane out of the spin.
In a quirk of fate, Fred Machesney was at his airport that day and witnessed the crash. He jumped into one of his small planes as soon as he saw that Al was in trouble. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done to stop the crash from happening. The small plane smashed into the ground at a horrible speed.
One does not even want to imagine what Rhoda’s family was experiencing as the watched the plane crash into the earth.
There were many witnesses to the crash and they all rushed to the scene. In fact, there were so many people that Machesney couldn’t land his plane safely at the location.He circled the scene and then headed back to the airport to land. He would return in his truck within a short time.
The men that arrived quickly were met by a horrific sight. The plane was completely smashed. Arthur was still strapped in his seat. He was lifted gently out of the cabin and laid on the ground. The damage to the young man was obvious and he died before emergency help arrived.
Al had managed to crawl from the wreckage and Machesney saw him waving as he flew over the scene. By the time others arrived, he was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, he would die from his injuries a day later.
Both men suffered from massive damage. Their arms and legs were crushed and they both had extreme internal injuries. Arthur had also suffered skull fractures.
Rescuers were thrilled and shocked to find little Rhoda alive. They removed her gently from the plane and rushed her to St. Anthony Hospital. The doctors said it was a miracle the teen was still alive. She had many broken bones including both arms and legs. Rhoda would undergo a ground-breaking surgery for that time as doctors tried to save her life. Her father donated blood for the little girl.
The doctors were not optimistic about Rhoda’s chance for survival and they prepared the family that if she did live there was a good chance that she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life. The damage was just too extensive.
Rhoda’s mother, Edith was so overwhelmed by the loss of her beloved brothers and the possible loss of her daughter that she went into labor early. She gave birth to a little girl on August 29. The family waited until Rhoda was stable before asking her to choose the name for the baby. She decided that Ruth Joanne was a fine name for her sister.
Rhoda’s crushed body took a while to heal and her arms and legs were suspended. The nurses hung books from the cables so that Rhoda could keep her mind busy with reading. They were very impressed with the little girl’s bravery and her cheery disposition. Though they knew the pain she was suffering had to be incredible, they stated that she never complained. Rhoda always did what they needed her to do. The nurses also knew that the little girl was terribly lonely. Her mother and new little sister were in the same hospital but at night the nurses would hear Rhoda crying softly.
They worked with the family and were able to surprise Rhoda with a party for her 14th birthday right in her hospital room. Many of her school friends came to spend some time with Rhoda for her special day.
Rhoda was finally able to leave the hospital after 74 long days on October 31, 1928. Her homecoming was bitter sweet for the little family. Her recovery was truly a miracle but they also suffered from the death of their family members. Even though Rhoda made a full recovery and would go on to live a remarkable life, her parents always carried a burden of guilt for allowing their children to go up in that plane. It was something that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. R.
Kathi Kresol is a local author and historian. She shares the stories she researches in this column, at presentations and events that she hosts. Please visit her website at hauntedrockford.com to read more stories and for her a list of upcoming events.