This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri March 21st 2018.
This is a story of pain, terror, pride, courage, and compassion. It is also about the magnificent spirit of the men and women who make up America’s military community.
Today is Wednesday March 21st. In 1994 the 23rd of March fell on a Wednesday. That was a bright sunny day with very little wind and temperature in the mid 60’s, in North Carolina. A perfect day for parachute jumps. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina the 82nd Airborne Division had paratroopers from the 504th and the 505th Infantry and the 782nd Support Battalion at the area called “Green Ramp”, which is the area on Pope Air Force Base (at that time, now Pope Field) where parachutes are issued and pre-jump rehearsals are conducted. Also there, were troops from the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, and the 59th Aviation Battalion of XVIII Airborne Corps. This was to be a “Hollywood” jump, no equipment, just a helmet, a parachute and a reserve chute.
The Green Ramp area has some buildings used by the 82nd Jumpmaster School, a jumpers assembly building called the pack shed, some steel CONEX containers, two Air Force buildings, trailers, a snack bar and the Jumpmaster School training area with C-130 and C-141 airplane mockups on foot high concrete platforms where paratroopers rehearse aircraft exits and taller wooden platforms for practicing parachute landing falls. Two C-141 Starlifters were parked on the runway, waiting to load the paratroopers, about 75 feet from the mockups. Some C-130 Hercules were parked further away. F-16 and A-10 Fighter planes were in the air conducting training. There was a total of about 500 paratroopers at Green Ramp in various stages of preparing for a jump. About 1400 (2:00 PM) Capt. James Rich, the 525th MI Brigade’s S 4 (logistics officer) who was the jumpmaster on one aircraft, had just finished rehearsing duties with his jumpmaster/safety team. Cards in hand, he began to practice a briefing he was to give to the paratroopers at 1430. Members of his group were located under the trees near a C-141 mockup. A short distance away paratroopers from the 504th and 505th were listening to a briefing on static line safety, their backs to the runway, many were sitting, most had their helmets off. Second Lieutenant (2LT) Judson “Jay” Nelson, a Platoon Leader in Company D, of the 2nd Battalion 504th was standing at the back of that formation. Some troops already had their parachutes on and were walking back from the pack shed.
At 1410 (2:10 PM), Capt. Gerald Bebber, the 525th MI Brigade chaplain, remembered that he had left the C-141 mock-up and was about 20 feet from the pack shed when he heard the high pitched screech of a jet fighter airplane at open throttle from beyond the pack shed suddenly give way to a deep reverberating thud and massive explosion. He said; “I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed…. The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling “run” from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps thirty feet beside the edge of the blast, and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where . . . I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. I turned to face the training area and saw “a scene from hell.” To my right side were two crushed food vendor trucks, one in flames. One of the vendors was on fire, and a soldier standing over him was trying to put out the flames. The row of mock-ups also was in flames, and burning debris and hot metal were everywhere. Within about 25 feet I came across my first victims, two soldiers on fire. While two other rescuers smothered the flames on one soldier, I took off my shirt and knelt down beside the other casualty to extinguish the flames. But the soldier’s uniform top was soaked with fuel, which kept reigniting the fire. Finally, I shoveled sand and gravel from the path that ran along the mock-ups onto the soldier’s back and successfully quenched the flames. I tried not to get sand on the soldier’s left leg, which flying wreckage had virtually cut off.
A C-130 and an F-16 had tried to land on the same runway at the same time. At first it was thought to be all Air Traffic Control error, but was later determined to be partly pilot error. The nose of the F-16 severed the C-130E’s right elevator. On impact, the F-16 pilot applied full afterburner to try to recover the aircraft, but it began to disintegrate. The C-130 was able to circle around and land safely. Both pilots ejected from the F16, but their aircraft, still on full afterburner, continued on an arc towards Green Ramp. The F16 hit the ground between two C-130’s and skidded into one of the C-141’s parked next to Green Ramp, puncturing fuel tanks. The explosion hurled the fireball and the F-16 wreckage directly into Green Ramp where the paratroopers were sitting and standing. 2LT Jay Nelson said that he heard two popping sounds (which were the F16 pilots ejecting) behind him and looked back to see the F-16 coming at them. He said, “It looked like it was broken in half and on fire. I took two steps and dove for the ground and the whole world at that point turned orange. It was literally so hot, the air was sucked out of my lungs and I blacked out. I woke up and I was on fire,”
Captain Rich realized that he couldn’t outrun the fireball and dropped to the ground behind the one foot high concrete platform of a mockup. He remembered the sensation of intense heat as the fireball passed over with a weird low pitched roaring sound like that of a blow torch, and debris hitting all around like banging of metal pipes. His back was on fire. Rolling on the ground to put the flames out, he noticed the fireball had gone. Near him was a man “burning like a human torch.” Rich lunged at the soldier and knocked him to the ground. With his bare hands he tried to extinguish the flames, but the soldier’s fuel-soaked clothing kept reigniting. “No matter how hard you patted you couldn’t get the fire out.” He ripped off the man’s shirt and quenched the flames. A few feet away Rich helped another soldier put out spots of fire on the back of a female soldier lying on the ground. He decided to look for others who might need help. It was then that the sheer devastation on Green Ramp hit him: The number of wounded was almost overwhelming. Everywhere there were groups gathered around the injured trying to help them. Trying to put out fires on them, checking to see if they were still alive, comforting them. Others were running around in half panic, half dazed, looking for someone to help or something to do. Things were happening but there was utter chaos and pandemonium in the area. As 2LT Jay Nelson got the fire on his body put out, he saw a chaplain that knew him and his wife of nine months, Beth. He asked the chaplain to call Beth and tell her that he was OK. He wasn’t.
Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, started rolling when the fire caught up with him. “Ammunition from the F-16 chain guns was going off. I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.” Cowper helped about five or six people before realizing that he had a broken leg. Someone helped him out the gate and into a Humvee for transportation to Womack Army Medical Center. Cowper considered himself lucky.
Sgt. Waddington “Doc” Sanchez, a combat medic with the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, “was . . . one of the first to see the explosion come his way….” He yelled for everyone to get down or out of the way. In taking time to warn others, he perished in the fireball’s wake. “He gave the ultimate sacrifice, his own life,” said Lt. Ronald Walker, Sanchez’ medical platoon leader. The father of five had planned to make a career in the Army.
Specialist Estella Wingfield, an information systems operator with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, remembered: “A sergeant I didn’t know looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the shirt, threw me several feet in the air and jumped on top of me…. An instant later, I heard the blast, felt the extreme heat from the explosion and the debris falling on us…. After the explosion and the rounds stopped going off, he whispered in my ear, “Crawl out from underneath me.” I did and took off running.” When she realized the sergeant was not running behind her, she ran back to the spot where he had protected her from the explosion. He was dead. Staff Sergeant. Daniel E. Price of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, sacrificed his life to save a female soldier he had never met before.
Sergeant First Class Juan Gonzales of the 44th Medical Brigade was there waiting to make a jump and he had a cell phone. He immediately called Master Sergeant Richard Young in his brigade operations section. All staffed ambulances were immediately directed to Green Ramp. Firing ranges were closed and their ambulances also sent to the scene.
Many people not involved in the accident had rushed onto Green Ramp to offer assistance. They included instructors from the jumpmaster school; medics from Special Forces, who were in the jumpmaster school that day; members of Fort Bragg’s 44th Medical Brigade, who were training nearby; and others who happened to be in the parking lot. The fireball never reached them, but they saw what happened and instinctively went to help.
To transport wounded to the Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg, troops commandeered all sorts of vehicles—trucks, Humvees, military vehicles, and privately owned cars belonging to jumpmaster school students. Instructors, students, Joint Special Operations Command medics, trained medical personnel from nonmedical units, and Air Force personnel, who either had witnessed the explosion or were nearby, tore up the jumpmaster school to make litters of plywood, doors, and black boards, for the victims. “If you could put someone on it, they used it,” said Tech Sgt Ricardo A. Gonzales, an aeromedical technician with the 23d Medical Squadron. Rescuers then drove the casualties to the hospital. Military Police descended on Green Ramp and escorted anything carrying casualties, as fast as they could through Fort Bragg to the hospital.
Specialist Brian Powell, an emergency medical technician, described the Humvees he saw taking injured soldiers to Womack under escort of military police: “The back of the hummer was full of bodies…. They were piled on top of each other and one of the guys was keeping them down, trying to keep them calm. They were black, covered with soot. Some were hurt really bad. All casualties who were still alive were evacuated to Womack’s main hospital within forty-five minutes of the accident, most of them within 30 minutes. Nine were dead at the scene, two died on the way to the hospital, twelve more soon would die of wounds and burns, and one almost 10 months later.
As soon as the 911 alert of the accident at Pope was initiated many things happened almost simultaneously. The 82nd Airborne Division Commander, Major General (MG) William Steele, immediately sent a team to Green Ramp to establish an EOC (Emergency Operations Center) to help verify the names of all the casualties, their status, and their evacuation destination. The Division Chief of Staff, Colonel John Marcello, sent Lieutenant Colonel Randy Standsfield, the Division G1, with some personnel from the division operations section to set up an EOC in the Patient Administration Division of Womack Army Medical Center. There they would build a data base on all the casualties and become the central point of contact for soldiers in the hospital and for family support. MG Steele also ordered the 1st and 3rd Brigade Commanders, Colonel John P Abizaid and Colonel John Schmader to immediately conduct casualty assistance training for their officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) (sergeants). The majority of the casualties were in those two brigades.
MG Steele’s said; “We will take care of families. We will do this. I don’t care what it costs…. This is what we are going to do. This is my intent.” The general’s statement provided direction for his officers and their wives; they worked as partners in the aftermath of the tragedy and facilitated the tasks of the family support group.
The XVIII Airborne Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Henry Shelton, directed that an EOC be established at XVIII Corps Headquarters and at Fort Bragg Garrison Headquarters.
At that same time, Major (Doctor) Craig Corey, the chief of the emergency medical department, at Womack Army Medical Center, activated their mass casualty plan and called in extra emergency room physicians, nurses and medical technicians. Also at the time of the explosion, Brigadier General (BG) (Doctor) Robert Claypool, the commander of Brooke Army Medical Center, which includes the Army Burn Unit, at Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio), Texas, was attending a video teleconference. Upon being interrupted and told of the accident, all participants in the conference were informed, which included the Surgeon General of the Army and the Surgeon General of the Air Force. BG Claypool had a Burn Team already in North Carolina diverted to Fort Bragg, and directed that three more Burn Teams, each consisting of a physician, nurse, respiratory therapist, and an LPN, with sufficient equipment and fluids to handle 40 to 60 burn patients, get in the air to Fort Bragg. The Air Force immediately shipped 20 ventilators directly to Fort Bragg.
MG Steele had a nine man liaison team organized, which departed at 0300 on the 24th for Fort Sam Houston, to provide information back to Fort Bragg and to assist patients and families however they could.
The first two casualties to arrive at Womack were two food venders with minor burns, the next one arrived on a plywood stretcher. He had a leg amputated with a tourniquet held in place with a crow bar. Another had burns on 100 percent of his body. He was treated and transferred to a regional burn facility.
The Head Nurse of the Emergency Room was an extremely competent Major Patricia D Horoho. Major Horoho’s assignment to Fort Bragg had been like coming home, because she was an army brat, who was born in that hospital and grew up on Fort Bragg. The 22 bed Emergency Room was quickly overwhelmed, so taking advantage of the mild weather, Major Horoho began triage in the driveway. That spilled over into the grass, with the injured on plastic sheets. Volunteer soldiers held sheets up to protect the injured from the view of reporters who had gathered across the street. Practically every doctor, nurse, and medic on Fort Bragg, stopped what they were doing, closed their clinics and rushed to the hospital to help. A hospital spokesperson said, “They just put on gloves and went to work.”
Womack Chaplains went to the Emergency Room before the casualties arrived. They helped carry litters and moved from patient to patient offering consolation and prayer in attempts to calm ” the “frightened injured” and the frantic caregiver.” Chaplains from all of Fort Bragg went to assist families, patients and staff at Womack.
By 10:00 PM that night, the hospital had treated and released 51 casualties, their follow-up care to be on an outpatient basis, and admitted 55. Twenty five to intensive care units and 30 to inpatient wards. Another 13 casualties were transferred to regional hospitals, 7 to the Jaycee Burn Center at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 5 to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, and 1 to Highsmith-Rainey Memorial Hospital, both in Fayetteville. There were 130 casualties from the Green Ramp disaster.
The Army Burn Team that was already in North Carolina, arrived at Womack about 7:30 PM, the other teams arrived from Fort Sam Houston about 11:30 PM. They immediately evaluated the 55 patients admitted to Womack, and selected 20 to be transferred to the Army Burn Unit. An Air Force C9 Nightingale Medivac plane, with the first 11 burn victims, took off from Pope Air Force Base at 7:20 AM. Another C9 took off at 12:50 PM with the remaining nine. They were wrapped in aluminum-lined blankets to keep their bodies warm, and thirteen were on ventilators.
At battalion level, disseminating information, notifying and caring for families, and caring for the needs of the casualties fell squarely on the unit commanders. The majority of the casualties were in the 2nd Battalion of the 504th, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Stanley McChrystal and the 2nd Battalion of the 505th, commanded by LTC Lloyd Austin. LTC McChrystal established a battalion EOC at battalion headquarters under the command sergeant major and the S-3 (operations officer). He also set up a small command post at Womack and for three hours on the 23rd, on the airfield. LTC McChrystal ordered the two units that were away training to return to Fort Bragg, prohibited early dissemination of information about casualties, and tried to bring the wives of his injured paratroopers into the company areas to ensure that they received the care and support they required. He stayed at the hospital command post until 0500 on the twenty-fourth, creating master lists of tasks and the people to perform them. He sent soldiers from each company to Womack to serve “almost as reaction type guys,” to take care of “the thousand little things that would come up.” He appointed liaison people to be with the families of casualties, whether dead or alive, and soldiers to participate in the next-of-kin notification process. He coordinated everything with corps, division, and brigade personnel and “got tremendous support from them.”
Beth Nelson made it to the hospital to find that Jay was in surgery to relieve the swelling from the burns. She was led to a room with other Family members. She said, “”This young Soldier in PT clothes kept going back between the doctors and me to tell me what was going on with Jay. I don’t know who he was but he stuck with me for the afternoon.” She finally went home to wait for a call about when Jay would be moved to San Antonio. The battalion commander’s wife, Anne McChrystal, called her that Jay was back in surgery. When she arrived back at the Family Room in the hospital, the look on Anne McChrystal’s face scared her. “Just tell me he’s alive. That’s all I want to know”, she said. Anne answered “He’s alive.” She had intended to tell Beth that they didn’t expect Jay to make it through the night, but didn’t, and he did make it. Beth did get to see her husband that night. She said, “He didn’t look anything like Jay. I went home and prayed all through the night.” The next morning she was on the plane with Jay, along with family members of the other injured who were on board, to the Army Burn Unit at Fort Sam Houston. They would be there for two months.
Emergency medical evaluation boards were established to provide early retirement for the soldiers who were near death in order to increase their dependents’ benefits; the widow would receive the retirement and the child the death indemnity compensation, about $750 a month. The division EOC had to ascertain who was married, who had children, who was critically injured, and who should be processed first among the casualties. Because of this effort, only one soldier with children died before the division was able to retire him early. “Retiring people was a focused effort, day and night,” recalled Colonel Stansfield, who coordinated the work with the XVIII Airborne Corps casualty assistance personnel. General Steele recalled that “Corps, Department of the Army, all of them just opened the door and said: ‘Call. We have the board ready; we can do this procedure in a matter of minutes.’ Things that would take a year when it’s not a crisis were happening in a matter of minutes over the phone.” Later, the corps recommended clarification of Army policy to allow posthumous medical retirement for all casualties.
A nucleus of military wives arrived at Womack shortly after the accident and stayed until the early hours of the morning, providing support to the families that gathered there. They gave hugs, held hands, listened, obtained food, made contacts for plane tickets, and did what was necessary to organize assistance. According to Pam Steele, the wives dealt with the emotions by keeping a sense of levity, a sense of humor; by talking about the accident; and by “feeling the sorrow.”
The Fayetteville and Fort Bragg communities have traditionally come together in times of trouble. But the magnitude of the tragedy on Pope Air Force Base resulted in a new level of community response. The community shared the enormous grief and offered untold practical assistance. When asked what they needed, the Womack staff said, first would be food to feed these hundreds of extra people working in the hospital and for the people waiting for word about their loved ones. Pizza Hut immediately sent free Pizzas to the hospital, and when the work got out, food started pouring in from McDonalds, Taco Bell, Hardees, Papa John’s, Domino’s Pizza, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Fayetteville community flew their flags at half-staff, and drove with their head lights on during the day. Housewives baked brownies and cookies and delivered them to the post. People donated money that the family support group set aside for the families. Bags of food and toiletries showed up in the foyer of the Fisher House, where families of sick soldiers stayed. Hundreds of volunteers offered their time and energy. The Fayetteville Regional Airport reserved two runways for military use.
Two days after the accident, President Bill Clinton toured the crash site and visited the Green Ramp casualties at Womack. Clinton talked to the injured paratroopers for about an hour and then mingled with the crowd that gathered outside the hospital. At a press conference in front of Womack the president spoke of the soldiers’ courage and spirit: “I wish everyone in America could see the faces and the eyes and the spirit of these people. They would realize how fortunate we are to be served by men and women like them. They are so brave and selfless.” Also on that day, the Secretary of Defense, the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force visited those in the hospital.
The XVIII Airborne Corps chain of command visited the injured paratroopers and their families as well. General Steele, as the 82d Airborne Division commander, involved himself with his wounded troops, calling on them frequently. He spoke of the phenomenal spirit of American soldiers. “They will not lie down and quit . . . even when the Lord deals them a blow like this…. They do not give up. Soldiers, with their eyes swollen shut and their hands burned and bandaged so you could not touch them, would say to you when you visited: “Airborne all the way, Sir!”
General Steele also made several trips to Fort Sam Houston to visit the troops in the Burn Unit. His first visit was on March 26th, in the Secretary of the Army’s C-20 airplane. Accompanying him were my old friend, Division Command Sergeant Major Steve Slocum (we were in the same company in Italy, he was run over by a cow out in a training area, no injury, just funny and embarrassing); Colonels Schmader, Abizaid’ and McChrystal; the division chaplain, Lt. Col. Jerome Haberek; and the division surgeon, Maj. Jeffrey B. Clark. They all wore their battle dress uniforms and maroon berets. Pam Steele, Kathy Abizaid, and Anne McChrystal also accompanied the group. General Steele felt that “it was important to take the ladies with us,” since women have the facility to comfort and console. During the visit General Steele showed how much he cared about his troops: He cried with them, he held their hands, and he prayed with them. Later, he would say that he “learned from the whole process that there is nothing wrong with showing your emotions.”
The road to recovery was long and painful for many. Therapy, rehabilitation and surgeries, lasting for months and in some cases for years. Lieutenant Jay Nelson, with burns on his back, legs, and hands, had five skin grafts and ten other surgeries, enduring nearly unbearable pain. The key to his survival was his refusal to quit. “I just grit my teeth and . . . just try to gut it out,” recalled Nelson, hoping each time to be able to “just hold on a little bit longer.” At age twenty-four, he had to learn again how to walk and how to feed himself. A year later he needed more surgery. “Scar tissue pulled his left thumb back to a strange angle.” Cold weather brought on stabbing pains in his hands, and his back and legs itched. Although no longer able to be an infantry soldier, he did remain on active duty, and two years ago was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Bragg.
Many, no longer able to be combat soldiers went into the medical field, both in and out of the military. Some became nurses, LPN’s, physical therapists, and many into counseling patients with serious injuries.
One of the first casualties from the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, to be airlifted to San Antonio on March 24th was Sergeant Christopher “Chris” J. Burson. He remembered nothing that had happened to him on Green Ramp, in the emergency room at Womack, or on the flight to San Antonio. With burns on his feet, legs, hips, and hands and with part of his left ear missing, he woke up delirious in the burn unit. He experienced more mental anguish than physical pain because, in his words, “all the nerve endings in my legs were burned and dead.” He endured painful scrubs and underwent three skin grafts and six surgeries. Three weeks after the accident his spirit soared on the day he took his first few steps; “it was like being a baby again learning to walk.” To his delight, Burson discovered that he enjoyed occupational therapy. He practiced stepping on and off a 4-inch block and picking marbles out of playdough with his stiff left hand. Before the accident Burson had aspired to a career in the infantry, with a lifelong dream of becoming a sergeant major, but now, as soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he wanted to become an occupational therapist. “God makes things happen for a reason,” he said.
Leadership was evident throughout the response. Officers and noncommissioned officers, commanders, and command sergeants major, supported by their spouses, became personally involved in the welfare of the 130 Green Ramp casualties and their families, as well as those who were not injured but affected by the crash. By taking charge of the response, unit leaders decisively influenced the process. I have often written about quality of officers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and Fort Bragg. The XVIII Airborne Corps Commander, LTG Henry Shelton, retired as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, MG William Steele retired as a three star, Colonel John Abizaid retired as a four star, as did LTC Lloyd Austin, and LTC Stanley McChrystal, and the competent nurse Major Patricia D Horoho, retired as a three star Lieutenant General, as the first nurse to be Surgeon General of the Army.
This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri March 21st 2018.