At 3:23PM on May 31, 1970 a 45 second, 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean. This quake destabilized a 10 million cubic meter glacier on the north face of Mount Huascaran, causing it to slide down the slope of the mountain at 120 miles per hour. In its 3 minute trip, the glacier grew to an 80 million cubic meter, 3,000 foot wide avalanche that slammed into the small, highland town of Yungay and its 25,000 inhabitants. Of the 25,000 souls in Yungay, only 350 people survived, 300 of which were children. The picture of the lone surviving palm trees in the Yungay cemetery became the iconic image of this disaster.
Not far away, flying C-130’s for the US Airforce, pilot Kenneth Hay and crew heard the distress calls coming from the Peruvian radios. He, and the pilot in the other C-130 flying with him, made the decision to land in the capital of Peru and offer aid. With the high altitude of the mountainous towns impacted by the quake, these men knew their C-130’s would be the only capable aircraft to provide support to Yungay.
Both crews risked everything to drop loads of supplies to the stranded villagers. With the mountains on either side of the valley, they had to take dangerous approaches and stress the limits of the aircraft to avoid crashing as they supplied the first relief efforts. To add even more complications, the survivors would hear the aircraft approach and run under the plane in an attempt to be the first at the supplies. To keep from crushing the villagers, one aircraft had to dive into the valley first to lure the people away from the second aircraft so they could safely drop the supplies. These men worked day and night for 3 days to bring supplies to the survivors.
On day 4, the French military showed up to offer support. They told the American pilots that they would handle the aide operations with their helicopters. With the experience of flying through the mountainous terrain, the American pilots tried to warn the French that their helicopters would not be able to make it up to the villages. The French did not listen, attempted to reach the villages, and crashed their helicopters. The American pilots then continued to provide aid to the helicopter crews now stranded in remote mountains Peru as well as the surviving villages.
Because of their bravery, the American crews, including Ken, were awarded the Orden al Merito Aeronautico (Peruvian Order of Aeronautical Merit) by the president of Peru. This medal is proudly displayed with Ken’s service medals in Homeplate Café’s military shadowbox.