George Burk remembers it all. The window glass cracking mid-air on his Air Force Convair T-29 transport plane. The crash. The sounds. The smells. The pain. The white-hot, searing pain.
It was May 4, 1970.
The retired Air Force captain was one of four crew members and 10 passengers on the flight dubbed Visco 57, leaving Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County en route to Spokane, Wash., at 8 a.m. on a hazy but otherwise clear morning.
Just minutes after takeoff, it clipped a ridge southeast of Petaluma, crashed and caught fire, killing 13 of those on board.
Burk was the sole survivor, rescued by a Mangels Ranch foreman who happened to be driving a different route that day and saw the smoke coming from a small valley.
Scarred by burns over most of his body and left with jarringly tragic mental images, Burk has turned the catastrophe into strength and positivity. Now a motivational speaker and author, he turns 73 next month.
Wednesday, Burk and dozens of family members of those who died in the crash returned to the secluded, rolling hills to honor their loved ones.
(See video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7pZf6V8tPg)
It was the first time they'd been in each other's presence and for most, the first time they'd met Burk in person, whom they'd vaguely knew as "the only survivor."
Widows and children of the men killed gathered together Wednesday, some having come halfway around the world for the occasion. An Air Force color guard raised the American flag.
They stood solemnly, surrounded by dry grass and prickly thistles overlooking a stand of eucalyptus trees where pieces of the plane's fuselage still rest hidden and undisturbed.
Broken trees stand frozen in jagged poses from where the plane sheared them off 44 years ago.
Emotions were difficult to grasp.
"I feel really peaceful to be here," said Candace Shelton, whose father, co-pilot Col. E.G. Shelton Jr., died in the crash. "Even though tragedy brought all these wonderful people together, I'm really proud."
"It feels kind of like a homecoming," said her sister, Suzie Shelton, who lives in Santa Rosa. "This group shows what wonderful men our fathers and husbands were. They left wonderful legacies."
Burk dedicated a memorial bench that overlooks the crash site where so many of his buddies perished. Plaques identify them, as well as John Davieau, the foreman who saved Burk's life.
"I hope I can hold it together," Burk said before he walked toward the wooden slat bench.
"I want to acknowledge the heroes on that plaque," he said, listing them by rank, name and nickname, drawing knowing smiles from those watching.
Wonder, sadness, a sense of catharsis — Daryl Robinson of Iowa City said he felt a swirl of those emotions standing in the place where his father, Air Force Maj. Robert L. Robinson, the pilot, died. Daryl Robinson was 9 years old at the time and living on the Novato air base.