It’s A Wonderful Life

Awesome story my dad forwarded to me about my Grandma,who was in a car wreck back in December 1982.  It’s an enigmatic story inclusive of airplanes, the FBI and a $641,000 embezellment scheme.  They screwed up the date, it was 1982 rather than 1983, but nonetheless a remarkable story.  I was suprised to see the mention of Lunken Airport in the story, as I current work there at Executive Jets Management.  You can read the original posting of the story here.

There are times when it become apparent that your presence on this Earth set into motion a chain of events that led to good things happening. Parents have the feeling when they watch their children in their school play, or when they get married. For George Bailey in the classic movie, “Its a Wonderful Life,” the angel Clarence earned his wings by showing George. It happened in our family in 1983 while I was working after college at a local hospital and we got the call to get prepared because there was a plane crach several miles away. My brother, Frank was a local firefighter, and I knew he would be involved. My shift was over and as went home that evening, the details came out. It was apparent that there were casulties and my brother was indeed in the thick of things.

Montgomery recalls air crash

MONTGOMERY – Smoke billowed and fire spat from the newly formed hole in the side of the Sheppard Bookstore in downtown Montgomery. The tail of the plane was hardly recognizable. Twisted metal, wires and foam littered the front yard.

If he hadn’t seen the small plane crash with his own eyes, firefighter Frank Lerner may not have believed it was a plane at all.

Hours later, in a suburban neighborhood outside of Chicago, 7-year-old Joni Lynch returned from school. Her aunt softly asked a friend who had come home with her to leave.

There had been an accident in a place called Montgomery, Ohio. Joni’s father was dead.

Her father was one of six men who died 25 years ago, when a plane crashed into the Sheppard Bookstore on Dec. 16, 1982.

The plane was coming from Chicago. It carried four FBI agents, a Chicago investigator and an accused crook.

Carl Johnson, a suspect in a 1975 bank embezzlement, had planned to show the men where $50,000 of $641,000 had been hidden near Cincinnati. The plane had been expected to land at Lunken Airport.

Afterward, there was a short-lived craze where people searched for the money, but it has never been reported found.


Call it chance or fate that Frank Lerner and a group of Montgomery firemen were standing by the front window of the Montgomery firehouse, then less than two blocks from Olga and J. Kannard Sheppard’s bookstore just as the plane crashed.

They heard the twin-engine Cessna 411 before they saw it.

“He was sort of on his side at that point,” Lerner said. “We saw the crash and the big fireball.”

Reports say lights in the post office down the street flickered when the plane crashed and a man across the street described the scene as “panic … just craziness.”

Lerner said he remembers the fire chief didn’t wait for the fire truck, but ran – full speed – to the crash scene.

The chief pointed Lerner toward a station wagon that had been in the path of the plane. It was on fire and a woman was inside, pounding on her driver’s side window.

“The door had been jammed from the impact of the airplane,” Lerner said. He had a pry bar with him. “I’m told – I don’t recall it – I yanked the door off the hinge.”

The woman in the car, Phyllis Neyer, ended up with burns on 12 percent of her body and was hospitalized for nine weeks. She underwent surgeries on her left knee, which was broken in the accident, and several skin grafts.

Tuesday is Neyer’s 76th birthday. She said she knows the years with her family after the crash have been a blessing. She knows she’s lucky she didn’t die that December day she went to buy last-minute Christmas presents at the Sheppard Bookstore.

“I look down and see my wool slacks starting to burn, down by my ankles. I was saying in my own prayer to God, if this is the way I’m supposed to die, then I accept it, but if not I really need some help,” Kenwood resident, Neyer said.

Luckily, there was someone on hand to save Neyer, and after years of therapy she has learned to accept her physical and emotional scars.

The men on the plane, however, stood no chance. Paramedics set up a clothesline of sheets to keep the bodies out of sight.

It was later determined that the crash was an accident, according to FBI agent and Chicago office spokesman Ross Rice. Rice worked with all four men, Robert Conners, Charles Ellington, Terry Hereford and Mike Lynch. The Chicago investigator killed was Patrick Daly.

The plane hit some power lines about 10:15 a.m. before demolishing a telephone pole, a pick-up truck, Neyer’s station wagon and finally the side of the bookstore,
which happened to be the historic Blackerby Building, built in 1814.

A handful of others were rescued from the bookstore – including customers, staff and the owners – by emergency personnel, but no one on the ground was killed.

Frank Lerner is no longer a firefighter. He helps direct flights for Comair at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. A few years after the crash he and his wife bought a house just a few blocks down Cooper Road from the crash site.

Helping Neyer in 1982 was part of the job and he’s happy he did as he had been trained to do, but doesn’t credit himself with saving her life.

“I helped her out of the situation,” Lerner said. “I’m sure someone else would have done it if I hadn’t been there.”

Neyer’s husband Don certainly is thankful Lerner was there. He’s glad his wife was around to see their eight children and 32 grandchildren grow up.

“I think it had a very positive long-term effect on her, though the short term effects were pretty devastating,” Don said. “It made our marriage stronger and gave us a realization of what life’s all about.”

On Dec. 13, in honor of the crash’s anniversary, Don plans to do the invocation for the Rotary Club of Cincinnati’s meeting. He originally wrote the invocation to read on Dec. 16, 1982, the day of the crash. Right before he got up to read it, he got the call from a doctor about his wife’s injuries.

He had planned to read the words, “Lord give us the ability to take hard knocks and come up smiling.”

At the risk of doing yet another post on my family, I must say, that I am as proud of Frank today as I was in 1983, and am eternally grateful for all the men and women who put themselves in harms way – going into the fire, instead of away from it. On 911, the whole world found out what I have always known: firefighters are normal, but special people who do heroic things when called upon.

I Knew that Mrs. Neyer survived the accident, and that her many children were now going to have their mother to raise them, but to hear her story 25 years later was truly a blessing to all of us. Her husband kept contact with Frank for a while after the accident, and her broken leg was probably due in part to her rescue, as Frank had only seconds to pull her from the car and her leg was caught in the wreckage, but she and the family were so grateful. Frank is on the plaque at the firehouse for Firefighter of the Year, sharing the honor with another firefighter not mentioned, that pulled an elderly wheelchair resident from the second story burning building. He also won a county-wide award that year too. But I think I can safely say that the greatest award he received was hearing about Mrs. Neyer’s family 25 years later.

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