Ken Fortenberry feels like he has finally figured out what happened to his father on November 7, 1957.
On that fateful day, Ken’s father, William H. Fortenberry, was one of 44 people on board and one of eight crewmembers that lost their lives in a plane crash aboard Pan Am Flight 7 on the way to Honolulu, Hawaii. One week after the crash, a Naval search crew was able to find some debris and the bodies of 19 of the 44 people on the plane. The Civil Aeronautics Board was never able to pinpoint an exact cause of the crash or recover the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
Ken was just six years old when his dad left home that day to co-pilot the flight that left San Francisco International Airport. That would be the last day he’d ever see his father.
“It just bothered me throughout my life. I kept expecting one day he was just suddenly going to show up and be back in my life,” said Fortenberry. “I think it was when I was 14, I finally realized that dad’s not coming back home. So I started searching for answers and that’s where I have been forever it seems.”
Fortenberry has been a long-time investigative journalist with more than 200 state, regional, and national awards for journalism excellence. He has edited, published, or owned newspapers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Fortenberry gained national recognition in 1987 with his local coverage of a corrupt sheriff for the McCormick Messenger in South Carolina. He dealt with two explosions outside his house and multiple threats on his life. Fortenberry’s work eventually led to a federal prison sentence for the sheriff, a bribery conviction for the sheriff’s replacement, and uncovering that the department’s chief deputy was an ex-convict. He was then featured on 60 Minutes on CBS and the Today Show on NBC as well as in print publications that included The New York Times and Newsweek.
Even with all of that work, solving the mystery around his father’s death was always on his mind. Fortenberry’s book, Flight 7 is Missing: The Search for My Father’s Killer went on sale Wednesday after nearly six decades of investigating and writing the finished product.
“Every free moment I have had in my life for the past 50 years, I have been pursuing this story. It was a struggle throughout my life. Every door that got closed in my face, I would just push another one open,” said Fortenberry.
Ken attended the University of South Carolina before dropping out to join the United States Army. There, he worked in the Army information office and then ended up in Lincolnton after military service, editing a tri-weekly newspaper in the 1970s.
Fortenberry investigated many claims and possible causes of the accident. He investigated something as simple as a mechanical error to things incredibly complex, including a Chinese attack on the plane after a CIA-foiled plot to assassinate Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, a possible UFO incident and a mass murder-suicide committed by a passenger aboard the plane.
As for how Fortenberry and his wife, Anna, found their way to Boone, two of his sons attended Appalachian State University and the family fell in love with the High Country.
“We had a house up here that the boys lived in since apartments were so expensive. Once they graduated and moved out, we gutted the house and moved in,” he said.
Ken says other than the cold winter months up here, this is the place he wants to be.
“We always liked it here, it’s just a great place to live. We’ve lived in so many places over the years; been transferred from one place to another, but we have always just found Boone as the perfect place for us. We love everything about it, we love the people and we love the community,” he said.