Russell Matthews, 23, lives in Hollywood and wants to direct adventure movies. But the adventure he’s on now beats any script. During October, Matthews and 15 others will search the atoll of Nikumaroro, a desert island in the South Pacific, for the remains of aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on July 2, 1937, on her pioneering round-the-world flight.
Theories of her fate abound, but the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believes that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed on Nikumaroro, 350 miles southeast of Howland, the island where she was to refuel. “There’s a reef exposed at low water,” says Richard Gillespie, the expedition’s chief. “It would have been a perfect landing strip.” The tide would have gradually washed the plane into the ocean. A week after Earhart’s disappearance, a searcher reported signs of recent habitation on the atoll but, because there was no plane, assumed it was a campsite of natives from neighboring islands.
Matthews, who became involved with the group when he made a film documenting their search for another aircraft, went on the scouting party in 1989. “Nikamaroro is, literally, a desert island. Uninhabited. Little shelter. No fresh water. And 120-degree heat.” The searchers found a small grave, which they didn’t exhume, assuming it had been left by susbsequent colonists. Now they believe it may contain Earhart and Noonan’s bones. In October, Matthews and the others will go over the island with a fine-toothed comb; they expect to find the plane somewhere beside the reef. Earhart and Noonan may have lived for weeks on the atoll, waiting for a rescue that never came. “It must have been desperate for them,” Matthews says.