NEWPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – Perched in the middle of Newport, the Cocke County Memorial Building harbors nearly a century of history within its walls as one of the oldest buildings in the small town of less than 7,000 people.
Decades of community events followed the building’s construction in the early 1930s. Veterans with American Legion Post 41 manned the building for most of its history, and veterans today, including First District Commander Ron Cales, still use parts of the building as a meeting space.
Visitors can still make out beautiful architecture cloaked in cobwebs and dust. It would cost millions to get clearance to reopen the building to the public, and Cales said he and other community members continue to grapple with ways to come up with the funding for a restoration project.
While the future of the building remains clouded, the past is etched in the memory of the community. A 56-year-old tragedy is stamped in the building’s history, a memory darkened by the deaths of 39 people on board United Flight 823 on a sunny day in July 1964.
According to some in the community, some of them are still trapped within the building’s walls.
It began with a crash.
The Post headquarters’ supposed haunting isn’t news to Cales or the other veterans in the community. He doesn’t hesitate to give a tour of the building, pointing out areas where he or others witnessed events that defy explanation.
The gym, he says, is a hotspot for activity. He points to a pink ball centered in the middle of the floor. During one of many investigations, ghost hunters left the ball in the center of the gym, only to find that it tucked away in a corner of another room hours later, he recalled.
One thing’s for certain, he added: Nobody is willing to spend a full night in the building.
Paranormal investigators Kathy Shephard and Robb Phillips have combed through the building on several occasions, documenting strange voices, wildly-fluctuating temperatures, and even what they believe to be an apparition of a woman draped in a white dress.
Investigators say Cales is right – most of the activity they have captured centers in or around the building’s gym.
The gym holds some of the heaviest memories from a 1964 plane crash that killed all 39 people on board. United flight 823 departed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 9 1964 with clear skies ahead on its path to Knoxville.
The plane never arrived at its destination.
According to the Aircraft Accident Report published by the Civil Aeronautics Board two years after the crash, witnesses saw Flight 823 flying at a low altitude with what appeared to be smoke trailing behind it.
Ground control last heard from the craft at 6:02 p.m., and the plane disappeared from radar at about 6:13 p.m.
The plane crashed into a hillside in Parrotsville at 6:15 p.m., about 10 miles northeast of Newport. The four crew members and 34 of the 35 passengers died on impact, and one passenger died after jumping from the plane before it crashed.
Phillips said that because the plane crashed in a remote, wooded area, crews needed a temporary site to store the victims’ bodies until they could be transported to a morgue. The Cocke County Memorial Building’s gym became a temporary morgue where crews placed the bodies of the crash victims.
Phillips and Shephard said they believe the encounters they’ve had in the building are from the spirits of those who died in the crash, confined within its walls for one reason or another.
“I believe they’re trapped here and just kind of stuck and don’t know how to get where they’re going,” Phillips said. “Maybe they’re still thinking somewhere waiting on their plane to land or waiting on their hotel, they probally have no idea.”
“Where did everybody go?”
Phillips and Shephard, the leaders of Paranormal Technology Investigations, initiated an investigation at Cocke County Memorial Building last year, returning on several occassions to collect evidence.
Shephard calls the haunt one of the most active haunts she’s investigated over the past decade, documenting evidence from strange sounds to video of an apparition.
On the first night of their investigation, Phillips said she and her team noticed a sharp drop in temperature. Comfortable temperatures greeted investigators as they arrived for their first night, but that changed as they began setting up equipment for the investigation.
“All of a sudden it was really cold – bone-chilling cold to where some of the members got up and left and went back into the other room away from it,” Phillips said. “Some of them even left (the building).”
Re-entering the gym at the end of the night, Shephard noted that the air was comfortable again as she concluded the investigation for the night.
“Maybe there was spiritis there, lingering, seeing what we were up to, what we were doing,” she said.
Recording equipment picked up running water in one of the abandoned bathrooms – the sound of a running shower is Shephard’s guess. She and Cales said other ghost hunters captured similar sounds, along with wet footprints leading away from a defunct shower stall.
Shephard notes the most startling evidence was an apparition of a woman dressed in white. Footage of the encounter is cloudy, but she said the entity was looking away until it noticed the crew and walked away.
PTI members have also captured several voices including a little girl looking for her brother. The New York Times reported a list of the crash victims which included two young children – a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother.
Phillips reported another voice in the gym after his team left an unattended camera rolling while investigators took a break in another part of the building. In the footage, investigators heard a woman’s voice, asking “Where did everybody go?” near the camera’s microphone.
Phillips said everyone in the team was accounted for at the time the camera captured the audio, and that it didn’t pick up any other sounds of investigators as they left the area.
“You couldn’t hear anybody talking from the camera when we were in the other room, you could not hear us at all,” he said.
Phillips and Shephard said they continued their investigation by visiting the crash site – a wooded hilltop off of U.S. 411 – on the anniversary of the crash. Using a piece of an equipment called an Ovilus, Shephard said her team picked out the words “ashes” and “alone.”
Closer to 6:15 p.m., the team recorded the words, “Stand,” “abort” and “surprise” from the device, followed by a loud roar.
A few seconds later, they could only hear static, she said.
“We thought it was a truck coming and we were going to have to pause everything, (but) the truck never came,” she recalled. “Right at about 6:15, a few second later, there was just static on the Ovilus and that was it. Everything else was just quiet.”
A big question mark
In the 56 years since the tragedy, no one can answer what caused the plane to crash in the first place.
Phillips said that his interviews with locals revealed that some believe it was a targeted attack.
Among the passengers aboard flight 823 were four doctors – Dr. Melton Cross from The State University of New York’s School of Medicine; Dr. P.H. Geisler from Jefferson Medical College; Dr. Robert Levin from the National Cancer Institute and Dr. Alfred Leitner from Harvard School of Medicine.
According to a July 28, 1964 article from the NIH Record, Drs. Geisler, Levin and Leitner were former National Institutes of Health scientists. The article notes that Dr. Levin was bound for the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies for a conference in order to deliver a paper at a Platelet Conference.
According to the article, Drs. Levin and Geisler were also researchers in a similar field, but the article doesn’t specify whether the other two men were headed to the same conference as Levin.
Phillips said some in the community believe that the four doctors on the plane could have fueled a motive for a targeted attack – locals say the doctors’ research would show that the chemicals used at the facility is harmful to employees and surrounding residents, he said.
“Everybody in the town says the same thing that there’s a conspiracy behind it, there’s a cover-up,” Phillips said.
“It should have never happened, but it did.”
The crash report found that there was a definitive fire in the passenger cabin of the craft, but scientists were unable to determine what started the fire. The flight recorder was destroyed in the crash, and the remains of the plane were badly damaged by fire.
The man who jumped from the plane before it crashed – noted as the “free-fall victim in the report” – had soot on his clothes and burns on his hands, face and neck. Scientists who analyzed the free-fall victim’s clothes found “no residues were found to indicate that an explosion occurred aboard the aircraft.”
The report concludes that the source of ignition is unknown, and that investigators were unable to rule out that one of the passengers could have carried hazardous material on board whether “innocently or with malicious intent.”
“Substantial aircraft cabin fires are such a rare occurrence that a most unusual and possibly not readily conceivable circumstance is visualized in this instance,” the report concludes.
Tom Diers, a researcher who spent six years investigating the crash, rules against the possibility of sabotage, debunking a similar rumor that U.S. Sen. Herb Walters was scheduled to board the flight that day, and that the plane crash was the result of an assassination attempt on the senator.
Diers cites the crash report’s findings that residue on the free-fall victim didn’t indicate any type of explosive, which he rules would have been the best way to carry out an assassination. Since Walters never boarded the flight, Diers doubts that sabotage is behind the crash.
“To believe that sabotage, no matter the person targeted, or for whatever reason, as the cause of the fire that took place on United Flight 823, is to implicate every adult person on board the plane that day,” he writes. “I’m unwilling to do that, because the more I look into this possibility, the less I believe that sabotage is what took place.”
Phillips and Shephard said one avenue to find out what happened is to ask the passengers who may still linger in the walls of the Cocke County Memorial Building.
While they don’t have any answers yet, that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop asking questions.
“There’s more to it, there’s more to it, and hopefully, eventually someone will figure it out,but I don’t know,” Phillips said.
“It’s going to be a rough one, it’s probably going to be one of these things that ends with a question mark.”