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50-year anniversary of tragedy that paralyzed Atlanta | News

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50-year anniversary of tragedy that paralyzed Atlanta

ATLANTA -- On June 3, 1962, Frank Virgin, just two days into his 14th year, was awakened by his alarm clock.

"The clock radio went off that I had, and they said there'd been a plane crash in Paris, and that's how I found out," he said.

Frank's mother Lee, his grandmother Clementina and his aunt Frances were on that Air France plane that crashed on takeoff at the Orly Airfield near Paris. The three women were among the 106 Atlantans killed that day, making it the largest aviation disaster at that time.

"I was numb, completely numb," Virgin said. 

The shock of a devastated young boy extended to Atlanta and the nation.

"It was among the leading lights of the community who had gone there to do a tour of European museums," Woodruff Arts Center CEO Joe Bankoff said.

The trip was filled with arts supporters, mothers and fathers and grandparents, excited for three weeks abroad. On the return flight to Atlanta, the plane never made it off the runway, crashing into a neighborhood and exploding.

Fifty years after that crash, the cultural and artistic hub of Atlanta is the Woodruff Arts Center, which includes the Atlanta Symphony, the Alliance Theater and the High Museum. Most people assume these places were just built, as such places are in growing cities, but the center was born from that disaster.

After the crash, then-Coca- Cola CEO Robert Woodruff, who was not a patron of the arts, anonymously donated $6.5 million to create what would become the Woodruff Arts Center.

"Mr. Woodruff understood that great cities have to have great art and great culture," Bankoff said.

Rickey Bevington, a fervent arts supporter, is named for her grandmother who perished in the crash.

"It's an honor to be named after my grandmother. I feel like I carry her spirit in some way which is also a burden. I feel like I'm carrying a ghost," Bevington said. "From what people told me, people never talked about it."

Virgin agreed. "Never. Never talked about it with anyone," he said. That 14-year-old boy who lost his mother is now a 64-year-old attorney, but he still misses her everyday. "She was smart, fun, perfect," he said.

Ninety-seven children lost one or both of their parents that day. There was no club of survivors. The children simply kept going and grew up.

On the front lawn of the High sits Rodin's The Shade, a gift from France to honor the Atlantans who lost their lives a half century ago. The figure is of a man, seemingly bent in grief.

"To me, the Rodin statue at the High is really the grave for my grandmother and great grandmother and to all of the victims and families that we lost, and I hope that more Atlantans go to that statue and learn about this story and really take ownership of that legacy," Bevington said.

"I can't look at that without thinking about the fact it means striving and pain all at the same time," Bankoff said. "It is entirely appropriate that we remember the loss, but that we celebrate what has been done to commemorate and build on that tradition for 50 years."

There is no way to mend the hearts and lives ripped apart that day. But there is healing and hope in what can be touched, seen and heard, and shared for generations to come.

The Woodruff Arts Center will commemorate the Orly tragedy with several free events this Sunday, including free admission to the High Museum. Click here to learn more about Community Day at the Woodruff.



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