Action News pieces together decades old mystery

FRESNO, Calif.

Reverend Jon Harris of Roanoke somehow managed to survive on a wing and a prayer that day and now this Virginia preacher shares a spiritual bond with a valley teacher.

The Blue Ridge Mountains serve as a scenic backdrop for the stunning fall colors of Roanoke. The changing of the seasons was not quite complete. The city offers a strong sense of history and an uplifting spirit.

Sunday voices mix with a message on life's choices. But few people have seen their faith tested in the way Reverend Jon Harris has been challenged. Harris told the congregation of the Faith Alliance Church, "My mind went one place and I said the last words on the earth that I was ever going to say, except I get to reflect on them now, Lord here I come."

It marked the first time Reverend Harris talked from the pulpit in detail about an incident above Huntington Lake on July 2, 1971. Reverend Harris is a man of strong faith connected by fate to a Central California woman named Laurel Peterson.

Peterson explained, "I'm adventurous. I hike by myself and stuff." Peterson left her Huntington Lake cabin in Fresno county for a long hike with her dog Bo on August 25th. She came across a sight which would change her life. "I saw it on a rock and I knew that was just wrong. Orange is not part of nature."

The middle school teacher from the north valley town of Salida looked up a hill and saw plane wreckage strewn across the rugged landscape. She said, "That wing part looked so new to me at that very moment. Yeah, I was a little reluctant to go up but I did. You know, you have to. I was afraid there was going to be human remains."

Peterson discovered the wreckage of a US Navy T-28 which left Lemoore Naval Air Station in June of 1971.

US Navy records obtained by Action News show the plane's pilot, Lt. James Wickes, died in the crash but his observer, 30-year old Lieutenant Commander Jon R. Harris, survived.

Harris is now 71. We went to his Roanoke home to turn back the pages of time. Their mission that day was to search for a plane which crashed a week earlier. It left Hanford en route to Lake Tahoe. Three Lemoore NAS pilots were among the four people killed. 25-year old Jerry Casey of Fresno, a civilian, also died in the crash.

While searching the mountains, Harris knew the T-28 didn't have enough power to clear a ridge of tall trees. Harris said, "I knew for probably for a minute, minute and a half that we weren't going to make it over. Just couldn't make it. He was too low. He didn't put the power up fast enough."

The plane hit a tree, shearing off the left wing. Harris recalled three hard hits left him with broken ribs, a broken foot and a badly damaged knee. "That's why all broken bones were on the left side because we hit on the left side like this, bounced up in the air and hit on the right wing."

Harris was still alive but he couldn't help Lt. Wickes. "When all of it stopped and I opened my eyes, his cockpit was completely in flames and I saw his hands up. It was an inferno and the flames were about right here."

Harris was able to crawl away from the fiery crash but mountain conditions are unforgiving. He felt hypothermia begin to set in at dawn but knew rescuers would be looking.

From the highest point he could find Harris reached for his pencil flare gun. He explained, "They had one inch flares and you put it in and just pull down, spring loaded. It didn't give you a flare it gave you a smoke trail."

Harris harnessed the power of the sun. Between the smoke trail and the bright flash of a mirror he shined on the helicopter cockpit, he was spotted and rescued. "I know it happened and it's had a profound impact on life and my faith."

The US Navy documented the crash but retrieval of most everything else other than remains is difficult. Like many other crashes the wreckage sits in the high sierra to serve as a memorial - frozen in time. Forgotten by everyone until Laurel Peterson came along. Peterson said, "I can't even fathom someone surviving that."

She grieved the loss until we told her someone actually survived. "I was amazed, I couldn't believe it. When you look at the crash you say there's no way, there's no way so it's a really an amazing miracle someone walked away from that."

But that wasn't the only time Reverend Jon Harris fell from the sky and had a brush with death. We'll continue his amazing story of survival in part two of our series.

Reverend Harris was stunned we were able to find him. We were stunned by his sharp memory and recollection of vivid details.

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