Exploring the Depths

Published 11:27 am Friday, May 23, 2014

“Can you imagine getting into this, much less going underwater in it?” Patti Montgomery Reinert asked in regard to this vintage diving suit. (Leader photos/JILL McCAUGHAN)

“Can you imagine getting into this, much less going underwater in it?” Patti Montgomery Reinert asked in regard to this vintage diving suit. (Leader photos/JILL McCAUGHAN)

SOUTH HAVEN — If you’ve lived in these parts for very long, chances are you’ve heard rumors about the mysterious 1950 crash and disappearance of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 off the coast of South Haven.

Now, for the first time, all of the known details of the crash that killed all 58 passengers and crew members can be studied in depth at the Michigan Maritime Museum, located at 260 Dyckman Ave.

Until the recent disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, NWA 2501 was the only commercial airliner that crashed and had never been found. Because of that, the museum has recently received attention from international media outlets such as CNN and Al-Jazeera.

The exhibit, “Fatal Crossing: The Disappearance of NWA Flight 2501,” opened just two weeks ago. It examines the events that led up to the crash, the extensive attempts to locate the wreckage over the past six decades — most recently by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association — and the biographies of those who were aboard.

“I still get goose bumps every time I come into this room. I just feel like it is a tribute to these people,” said Patti Montgomery Reinert, executive director of the Michigan Maritime Museum. “It’s really quite emotional. The exhibit highlights the 58 passengers. We’ve tried to tell their story a little bit.”

Visitors to the exhibit can watch vintage film footage of planes like NWA 2501 and listen to actual news broadcasts about the search for the missing plane. Never-before-displayed artifacts, including the clothing and personal items of the passengers, are also on display.

“It’s a horrific story. They haven’t determined exactly what took the plane down,” Montgomery Reinert said. “It was late June, the Fourth of July was coming, and literally, body parts started washing up on the shore, and so the mayor had to close the beaches. Everybody was just in complete shock. So, there are stories about that in this exhibit.”

While the display on NWA 2501 is timely and compelling, it presents only a fraction of the captivating artifacts, information and experiences that the museum has to offer.

In fact, it is a companion to the Michigan Maritime Museum’s new main exhibit, “Mysteries Beneath the Waves: Wrecks of the Sunset Coast,” which is located in the main gallery.

“We tried to create the feeling in this room of being underwater,” Montgomery Reinert said, of the room that has been painted entirely in deep blue hues. “The sounds you hear are the sounds that the divers’ equipment makes underwater when they’re breathing.”

The exhibit itself begins with a display on the evolution of diving equipment, without which none of the wrecks in the exhibit could have been explored.

“All of the wrecks included in this exhibit are near the coastal area—probably in a range of about 50 to 60 miles from South Haven,” Montgomery Reinert explained. “Each section of the exhibit focuses on a different wreck.”

While the exhibit discusses individual wrecks, such as “The City of Green Bay,” “The Chicora” and “The Andaste,” it also presents information on the different causes that lead to shipwrecks.

“We point out that there’s really many different ways that ships wreck—mechanical  failure, storm, fire, ice, and collision are some of them,” Montgomery Reinert pointed out.

A large color-coded map of the coast of Michigan illustrates the locations of the various wrecks and the cause behind each disaster.

“As many as 1,000 ships have been lost on the Great Lakes, and only 250 have been found,” Montgomery Reinert said. “Approximately 30,000 people have lost their lives on the Great Lakes in wrecks.”

Underwater films of the wrecks enable visitors to see what divers see when they explore the sunken vessels. A display on side-scan sonar is also included in the exhibit.

“People are really interested in the side-scan sonar because they’re seeing it on the news every day in the search for the Malaysian plane,” Montgomery Reinert said. “So, the display shows how that actually works—how they use, it, why they use it, and what it does.”

The museum also presents displays on ill-fated Great Lakes ships, including LaSalle’s “Le Griffon,” which has never been found, and the “Edmund Fitzgerald.”

While the indoor exhibits are captivating in themselves, they are only one part of the museum’s campus. Other buildings on the grounds include the Padnos Boat Shed, where boats are repaired and boat-building classes are held,  and the Van Oort Building, where historical U.S. Coast Guard lifeboats can be viewed.

Admission to the entire campus is $8 for adults, $5 for children and $7 for seniors. A guided audio tour is also available for a few dollars more, and admission to the museum includes the opportunity to tour “Friends Good Will” if it is in port.

In fact, “Friends Good Will” and the museum’s other historical boats provide visitors with the opportunity to get out on the water at a reasonable price. Ticket prices range between $20 and $42, depending upon the vessel and the length of the cruise.

“We have ‘Friends Good Will,’ our tall ship, our river launch, the ‘Lindy Lou,’  and ‘The Bernida,’ our 1921 racing boat,” Montgomery Reinert said. “It won both the 1925 and the 2012 Detroit to Mackinac Race before it was donated to the museum.”

More information about the museum and its boats is available by calling (269) 637-8078 or by visiting their website at www.michiganmaritimemuseum.org.