Cocke County Memorial Building: Perspective Almost 10 Years Later
Nothing stirs a young ghost hunter’s blood like the promise of spending a night in a location rumored to be haunted and not just haunted but positively infested with ghosts. Such locations are often the target of urban legends: lover’s lanes, long neglected back roads, cemeteries and insane asylums. More often than not, these urban legends are just that, legends. There is little to no substance to them. Often they can easily be busted with just the slightest digging and fact checking. Sadly, facts, history and the human story of these locations do not interest many “teams” and instead many young or new ghost hunters go into these locations armed with point and shoot digital cameras, digital audio recorders and magnetic field meters, waving those instruments around as if they were the PKE meter from the Ghostbusters franchise, ghost detectors that can pin point or track down a elusive phantom.
These investigators often “ooo” and “ahhhh” over particles of dust and water, even bugs, captured in their photographs, get excited over ambiguous sounds captured on their tapes and freak out over the slightest movement of their meters. Some even hold to the idea that these meters can be influenced and thus be used as a communication tool between non-corporeal dead people and the living (the K2 meter comes to mind) or that flashlights that turn on and off seemingly in response to questions can prove that life after death is a certainty. Too many investigators often jump the shark and proclaim that a place is infested with demons (whatever a demon actually is or if they exist), most of the time scaring the occupants or owners out of their wits. Unscrupulous teams will sometimes charge a family to “exorcise” (get rid of) these nasty entities.
Real investigators who take the time to slowly proceed and study the history of a location, the psychology and biology of those making the reports and having the experiences and to use actual science and reason, even trying to apply the scientific method to such experiences when possible are so few and far between that counting them on one hand in your local area should be an easy task. There are many who claim to be such, of course, but they are nothing more than pretenders, seeking instant respect and acclaim from their “clients” and to “compete” with fellow teams for cases, like vulture’s over a fresh kill.
There are places such as discussed above that really do show extraordinary phenomena, things that defy easy or rational explanation. In my early days of being an investigator, I had the privilege of investigating and studying such a place. From day one of beginning to study the unknown, I’ve always insisted on tight controls, dedicated slow research and applying the scientific method to test experiences and witnessed events as much as possible. I did the same with this location. My team had recently undergone some changes and as such, I decided to join forces with another local group and see if we could exchange ideas and methods, to learn from each other. Also from a logistical perspective, it made sense to have more people to cover such a large property.
The property itself was located in Newport, TN in the heart of Cocke County. A large red brick Colonial Revival style construction, the Cocke County Memorial Building was finished in 1931 for the American Legion, becoming post number 41. It was designed by Manley and Young, the same architects who designed the Cocke County Court House. The building itself was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and served for many years as community meeting spot, an entertainment venue and a sports hall. While designed as a meeting spot for the increasing number of veterans who were part of the American Legion, the darkest period of the building’s otherwise warm and vibrant history took place in the hot summer of 1964.
At 4:26 PM, United Flight 823 departed Washington-National Airport in Washington, DC. Her destination was Knoxville, TN, scheduled to land at 6:21 PM carrying her thirty-five passengers and four crew members. The flight took off with no difficulties. The plane itself was a Vickers 745D Viscount, a four engine passenger plane with the registration number of N-7405. Most of the passengers were business men and women, at least four of them were doctors, specializing in blood diseases and platelets, heading to a conference. At least two children, ages six and four were onboard. There was no indication of trouble at any point in the plane’s flight, which is why what happened remains an unsolved mystery.
At 6:02 PM, the plane was flying at 11,000 feet and twenty-four miles southwest of Holston Mountain when suddenly without explanation the pilots went off the instrument flight plan and not long after, the plane vanished off of the radar entirely. The last radio transmission of the pilot’s verified that everything was in order with no problems. For approximately the next ten minutes, the plane was simply gone. When it reappeared, its fate was sealed. A witness on the ground, Mrs. J.E. Waldrop, reported seeing a “violent red light” on the fuselage and at 6:15 PM, the plane literally disintegrated in mid-air, turning over to the left and finally coming down a nose dive, blowing apart in mid air, and what remained slamming into a hillside in Trentham Hollow. Those who saw the crash reported that at least one man opened the side door on the craft and leaped out of the flaming craft, falling to his death.
The wreck site was far off the beaten path and a road had to be bulldozed for authorities and rescuers to reach the site. What remained of the craft was minimal; not a single seat survived. They were all reduced to particles. Engine parts had been thrown over 1,000 feet from the crash zone. Bodies and body parts were charred beyond recognition. One body, that of a small boy, was pulled from a tree. Of the 39 people onboard, not a single person survived. United called the FBI to assist since no one could determine the cause of the crash. On site, the FBI reported finding papers related to the Oak Ridge nuclear research facility and confiscated them without disclosing their contents. The bodies and parts were collected as best as could be and transported to Newport for storage until their families could be notified and the bodies reassembled as much as possible.
The morgue that was chosen wasn’t big enough to hold the bodies and so, the bodies and parts were taken to the Cocke County Memorial Building and stored in the gymnasium for over two weeks while the investigation continued and the families were notified. The gymnasium was not air conditioned and in the summer heat, it was a horrific scene. Most of the bodies were buried as best as possible and those that were not will never be known. It will not ever be clear as to which parts went with which body or even if families got their loved ones back.
After the crash was investigated, no cause could be found for the fire that seemed to rip the plane apart. To this day, the crash itself is unsolved.
The memorial building continued to operate as a venue but its use continued to slow until it was mostly a meeting place in the later years for the surviving American Legion members. When myself, my group and the second group were invited to investigate in 2008, the building seemed lonely. We were told that paranormal activity that seemed like a haunting with strange sounds, moving objects and uncomfortable presences had been experienced by Legion members. The American Legion called us in to study the events and see if we could document them to make their members feel a bit more at ease. We set up that night with permission and locked the building down after touring it to get the layout and to ensure that we were truly alone. Only one door to the building was unlocked to the outside and that was the side door which we came in through. We set up a command post inside the conference area and marked the areas that had experienced the most activity: The attic storage area, the basement and sub-basement (boiler area) and the gymnasium. We set up remote cameras and recording devices in those areas and issued two-way radios, portable camcorders, digital cameras and measurement devices as well as audio recorders to several roving teams. We sent each team to a given area and then would rotate after a set period of time, taking measurements, conducting EVP sessions, taking documentation photos and video.
The two areas that seemed the most active were the gymnasium and the sub-basement and basement areas. The main basement had been converted into a dressing room for when stage plays were put on. The sub-basement was where the old boiler system was kept. The dressing room was were an EVP was captured of a child and later a woman screaming and crying, moaning for her child. The sub-basement was the site of a terrifying encounter for me personally. The steps leading down into the area were rickety wood and the floor itself in that old boiler room was covered in water. There were no electric lights. In that room, I experienced something that I do not know to describe other than a presence, an intelligence without form. I saw nothing, heard little but I felt it. A deep resonant cold that chilled me to the bone. I felt threatened and oppressed. As I left the area, I felt it’s heavy presence behind me, following up those rickety stairs, so close I could feel it on my neck. It was death, it was sadness and it was hate, a predatory thing that lurked in that darkness.
I never went back down in that area the entire night.
Upstairs, the gymnasium saw the most potent example of psychokinetic activity I have ever seen in any location in the ten years that I would come to be a ghost chaser. Throughout the night, old fashioned wooden Bingo balls would throw themselves from the bleachers down to the floor, hitting, bouncing and rolling. We conducted an experiment after hours of this happening and recorded the numbers on two balls and rolled them across the floor to the opposite wall. We heard them rolling across the tongue and groove hard wood floor and then they came back to us, as they had been for hours, as if something were playing with us. The only catch was the balls that returned to us, rolling across the floor, were not the same ones we had rolled out. We repeated this over and over. We collected these strange balls and realized the numbers corresponded to the alphabet and they spelled out the words BOY and GIRL.
Comparing that to the passenger manifest of the victims bodies of the plane crash that were stored in the building, we discovered two names, N. Anderson, six years old, a little girl and R. Harper, who was four. Earlier that night, I had been doing a tour of the gym when I saw what I thought was a small boy with a bowl shaped hair cut and old fashioned clothes standing off to one corner. He looked strange, like a hologram from Star Wars, blue and flickering. When I approached him, he vanished without a sound. The sounds of children were recorded in that building by us. Laughing and some crying.
The most explosive event that occurred during the investigation was when an EVP session was being conducted in the gym in front of the stage, the same stage we had heard the sounds of coins rolling around in old Mason jars on hours before. As we sat there, one investigator claimed that something was touching the back of her neck and the lead investigator of that group asked if whatever was touching the investigator’s neck could do something else.
There was a sharp whistle and an explosive WHAM. Needless to say we all jumped and there was significant cursing. A quick investigation revealed that the double doors that led to the kitchen area had been blasted open, doors that had been previously locked. The doors had slammed so hard into the plaster walls, that it had taken a chunk out of the wall and cracked the door. At all times, all team members were accounted for.
We left that night, our recorders full of strange sounds, explosive PK events, our camera tapes showing the throwing balls but with little answers to give the American Legion except that yes, strange things were happening and no, we had concrete rational explanation other than what it appeared to be, a powerful set of experiences in line with what some would call a traditional intelligent haunting, caused by the souls perhaps of the dead trapped in the walls and floor of the building in which their corporeal shells had last lain. We could not use anything there to prove life after death anymore than we could prove demons or UFOs but the experience was a life changing event. As an investigator then, I was young, inexperienced. Looking back now with perspective, I see just how green I really was, how much I didn’t know and how much I could have done to improve the results and the methods we used that night. Back then, I was one of those investigators as I described before: eager, chomping at the bit to get proof of an idea, proof of a concept that I only really at best vaguely comprehended. I was chasing an experience, not the truth behind the experience as so many young investigators do.
Today, as I sat outside, under the shade trees in my front yard, my iPad in my lap composing this, I began to dig deeper in hopes of finding out more about the crash in Parrotsville that led to the haunting of the Cocke County Memorial Building. Even years later, the case nagged at me. I learned quite a bit by my digging. I learned things like the fact that papers relating to Oak Ridge had been found without explanation in the wreckage and were promptly confiscated by the FBI. Like the fact that four blood doctors had been on the flight and most mysteriously of all, that the plane vanished for over ten minutes without any prior trouble before it reappeared and crashed to its fiery doom. None of this information was available at the time of our investigation years ago.
Like one of my inspirations, John Keel, I finally saw a pattern. The connection to blood (many UFO cases are tied to blood or the collection or taking of blood and flesh, such as animal mutilations), the connection to nuclear research (Oak Ridge), and the plane itself vanishing from radar for ten minutes only to reappear and take 39 souls to the grave setting up a haunting the likes of which I have never encountered again in ten years. Before his death, Keel speculated that perhaps all phenomena that are paranormal in nature may actually be a single intelligent force, manifesting in different ways to keep our attention looking one way, while the real story goes on in the opposite direction. That if we believe in the activity, it will change to reflect our expectations and that belief is ultimately the enemy, that to to get to the true nature of what we call paranormal, we must discard our preconceptions and assumptions.
Years ago, I would never have thought about this and learned from this research.I would have never connected the dots. But now…with perspective…I see a whole story that I missed while looking for the individual tree when I should have been seeing the whole story hidden in the forest.
Maybe all we need in this strange world of ghosts, demons, UFO’S and weird occurrences, to understand all that we see, hear and experience, to finally grasp it, all we really need, is some perspective.
Beitler, S. (2014, July 1). Parrottsville, TN Air Crash Kills 39, July 1964. Retrieved August 27, 2015, from http://www3.gendisasters.com/tennessee/4134/parrottsville,-tn-air-crash-kills-39,-july-1964
United States Department of Interior Historic Site Registration Form. (1995). Retrieved August 27, 2015, from http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/97001139.pdf
Hodson, E. (1966, July 9). United Flight 823 Civil Aeronautics Board Aircraft Accident Report. Retrieved August 27, 2015, from http://unitedflight823.s3.amazonaws.com/united-accident-report.pdf