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Amelia Earhart found! Great for science, but sad news for mystery buffs

Amelia Earhart found! Great for science, but sad news for mystery buffs
Amelia Earhart at the controls of her Lockheed 10E Electra before taking off from New Guinea, on July 2, 1937. She disappeared the next day. (National Archives)

Bones from Pacific island likely those of Amelia Earhart, researchers say

Amelia Earhart Likely Died on Nikumaroro, Study Finds

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I read the headlines with excitement, even awe, but also with a tinge of sadness and disappointment. It stands to reason many Amelia Earhart obsessives — and they are legion — felt the same way. After all, the mystery was in many ways the point.

I first learned of Earhart aficionados in the fall of 1999. As the year 2000 approached, The Times was running a series of articles about memorable 20th century events. I was assigned Earhart.

That's when I learned of the armies of researchers, professional and amateur, who spent untold hours trying to learn Earhart's fate. I spoke to members of a nonprofit foundation called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, which posted a disclaimer on it website: "Warning: The Surgeon General has determined the Amelia Earhart Search Forum to be a potentially addictive activity."

But now it appears the great chase is over. As many news outlets reported this week, an article in the journal Forensic Anthropology said advances in bone measurement indicated that bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940 are likely Earhart's.

Now seems a good time to revisit that story from 1999. In many ways, the Earhart obsession says more about the searchers than the searched. It was published on Oct. 19, 1999, and here it is:

Amelia Earhart in 1937 before takeoff in Miami for an attempted round-the-world flight.
Amelia Earhart in 1937 before takeoff in Miami for an attempted round-the-world flight. (Associated Press)
Mystery of Earhart Endures, Captivates

If Amelia Earhart had made it, the world would have hailed her as a hero. But by disappearing while trying to circumnavigate the globe, she became something much more enigmatic and enduring: a mystery.

The mystery may never be solved, which is probably just as well. It would be a shame to rule out some disappearance theories, even the fanciful ones, because they're so darned entertaining. Among them:

—The Japanese captured Earhart and used her Lockheed 10E Electra as a model for their fearsome fighter plane, the Zero.

—Earhart secretly slipped back into the United States and lived out her years under an assumed name.

—Earhart was spying for the U.S. government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the Japanese had imprisoned her but kept quiet about it.

Then, of course, there's the unromantic explanation: She ran out of gas.

What is it about a mystery that intrigues us so? Is it the answer, or the question? Probably neither. The puzzling out of the question is the point, and it can lead to obsession. Our century has specialized in such obsessions, most of them cloaked in conspiracy theories. Did gunfire come from the grassy knoll? Did Princess Anastasia escape a Bolshevik firing squad? Did a spaceship crash near Roswell?

The discovery of nine skeletons in 1991 and DNA testing finally solved the riddle of Anastasia--she perished with her family--so it's conceivable that science will solve the riddle of Earhart as well. Physical evidence is called for here, because the eyewitness accounts of Earhart remain dubious at best.

One Saipanese woman claimed she saw it all: Japanese soldiers led Earhart into a pit, ripped off her blindfold and shot her. When asked years later if she could locate the grave, she replied, "It is underneath the biggest breadfruit tree on the whole island." An excavation found no bones, only a 24-inch piece of black cloth the diggers guessed was the blindfold.

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The search continues. A nonprofit foundation called the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, has uncovered intriguing clues that suggest Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Noonan, landed at Nikumaroro, a small South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. Most tantalizing of all: fragments of a shoe--a heel, partial sole and brass shoelace eyelet--apparently from a woman's blucher oxford, size 9. Photos of the time show Earhart wearing such a shoe.

Earhart and Noonan left Miami on June 1, 1937, flying east along an equatorial route. The flight wouldn't be the first to circle the globe, but at 29,000 miles it would be the longest. They arrived in New Guinea on June 29 and headed for tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away, on July 2.

Perhaps the Earhart mystery's appeal lies in its convenient ambiguity, for although some facts can't be proved true, they also can't be proved false. For example, TIGHAR found scraps of a plane's aluminum skin on Nikumaroro. Analysis suggests it's not from Earhart's Electra. But can we be sure? Not yet.

This probably explains the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer on the TIGHAR Web site. "Warning: The Surgeon General has determined the Amelia Earhart Search Forum to be a potentially addictive activity."

For many people, the allure of the Earhart mystery is, quite simply, the mystery. For others, it's the woman herself, known for her poise, courage and charming, forthright personality.

In 1928 she became the first woman to fly cross the Atlantic, earning the nickname "Lady Lindy," even though she was just a passenger. But four years later she herself flew the Atlantic solo.

Her account of the flight in her aptly named autobiography, "The Fun of It," was understated and wry: "My own trans-Atlantic rations consisted of one can of tomato juice which I punctured and sipped through a straw." But the account also conveys her infectious determination. "I chose to fly the Atlantic because I wanted to. It was, in a measure, a self-justification--a proving to me, and to anyone else interested, that a woman with adequate experience could do it."

Such talk inspired countless women. It still does.

But not everyone wants Earhart or her plane found. More than one person has told Richard E. Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR: "This should remain a mystery." Indeed, some Russian royalists probably were crushed to learn the fate of Anastasia.

But mysteries have a way of spawning mysteries. Anastasia was found, but there was no sign of Alexei, her frail brother. Where is his body? And did he survive, as some people claim, only to be locked up in a Soviet insane asylum?

That's another question from our century of conspiracies.

Twitter: @StevePadilla2

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