On December 12, 1968, Pan Am Flight 217, a Boeing 707, crashed near Caracas, Venezuela and all 51 passengers on board were killed. One of the crew members – an air stewardess as they were then called – was Franciska Buyers who must have been 23 years old at the time.
All this came to mind yesterday when I happened to google, as I some times do, trying to locate people I used to know when I lived in London as a student in the sixties. I was searching for Anton Buyers, Franciska’s younger brother who was a student at Cambridge University when she was killed. I did not locate him but when I did a search relating to the circumstances of the crash of Pan Am 217, lo and behold, I found several references to that ill-fated flight. In fact, I did not know the flight number but knew that it crashed near Venezuela towards the end of 1968.
So why am I writing about Franciska – she was not an old flame though she was a friend. But only three of the victims of the crash were named in the google searches that I did – there was no mention of Franciska and I decided that, with this posting, I would remedy the situation. The named victims – sometimes an almost cursory mention – included a moving account by, Brian, the son of the first officer on the flight, William Canell who was only eight months old when his father was killed. There was mention of the name of the captain, Sid Stillwaugh. Finally, a reference to one of the passengers Olga Antonetti, a former Miss Venezuela.
I did finally locate mention of Franciska’s name in the St. Petersburg Times, dated December 14, 1968, available on the web = though itis not something that would surface in most searches. Also mentioned are other names including stewardess trainee M. Ambrey who was believed to be on her maiden flight in her new role. Other victims names also appear in this newspaper report.
Brian Cannell, the son of the first officer on the flight, in a gesture of remembrance of his father, constructed a model of the Boeing plane complete with its “Clipper Malay” name – a couple of images appear below.
I lived for about 18 months with the Buyers family in Highgate, London, in the early sixties, as a paying guest – I was then a student. I rented a single room and was provided my meals and was, for all intents and purposes, part of the family. Another paying guest was Sethi, an Egyptian doctor, in his thirties, who was doing some sort of specialization. The parents, Jimmy and Drucie were an unusual English couple. For one thing, they were both communists and, not surprisingly, they were atheists. Drucie, interestingly, had a sister who was married to a well known physician who were both very conservative and the polar opposite of Drucie. Jimmy had been a first violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and had played with some famous conductors in his time with the orchestra. They were very good to me and we had numerous discussions on politics and other issues of the day – they treated me like a son. Even after I moved on, I would keep in touch with them and visit them from time to time.
One of the striking things – at least striking to me at that time – was that Franciska and her brothers Anton and Gordon, called their father by his first name, Jimmy. Later, in “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, we of course have Atticus Finch addressed by his first name by his daughter Scout. I recall asking Franciska how it ever came about that she called her father by his first name and she told me that it was her father who wanted it that way.
Franciska and I were about the same age and so we hit it off pretty much right away. We tended to hang out – saw several movies together including West Side Story and Lawrence of Arabia. She applied to become an air stewardess with Pan Am based in New York in 1967. She was surprised and excited when she was offered the job – this was in an era when being an air stewardess was associated with a certain element of glamor since traveling internationally was not something that many people did. Thereafter, I would see her from time to time when she visited London on her various travels around the world. She told me of her involvement with a guy from Florida whose first name was Kit and later around the time she was killed, she was involved with some guy in New York in what seemed a serious relationship.
I was in India when the plane crash occurred and I heard about it upon my return when someone who knew of my friendship with Franciska called me to let me know what had happened. I was shocked and in a state of disbelief. I went to see her parents to offer my condolences. They were remarkably composed and seem more bothered by how it was affecting me than anything else. They told me that it was a suspected case of sabotage and that Franciska’s body had been recovered but they told Pan Am that they did not want to see the body and asked that they not be part of any funeral or burial. They did not even know where she was buried – and had no wish to know. It may sound callous but it really was not – they told me they wanted to remember her the way they knew her when she was alive and given that they did not have any religious beliefs, the burial and any related related service of worship was of no importance.
The cause of the crash was never established – the crash occurred at a time when “black boxes” in planes were not in use. The rumor of sabotage as its cause seems to have been superseded by suggestions of pilot error.
I would assume that her parents have passed on since they would be over a hundred years old today. I have no idea where her brothers are today. Gordon, the older brother was in the British army when I knew Francsika and Anton was at Cambridge University.
The unusual spelling of Franciska’s name was because her mother wanted it that way – she gave me some reason for it but I don’t recall what she said.
This entry is a cyber-memorial of sorts to Franciska – if anyone does a search for her name, they are likely to reach this website.
This post has been updated here. It includes an image of Franciska and her friend, Katherine Kane, who was also a flight attendant with Pan Am.
ADDENDUM: A New York Times article listing all the passengers and crew on this flight was recently provided to me by Jill Breitbarth.
Tags: Anton Buyers, Brian Cannell, Franciska Buyers, Katherine Kane, list of passengers and crew on Pan Am Flight 217, Miss Venezuela. 1962, Olga Antonetti, Pan Am Flight 217, Sid Stillwaugh, William Cannell