FORT BRAGG — Paratroopers shared memories of hurt and heroism Monday during a ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of one of the worst training accidents in U.S. Army history the plane crash at Green Ramp that killed 24 people and injured more than 100 others.
Twenty years ago something terrible happened here, Brig. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, deputy commanding general for operations for the 82nd Airborne Division, told about 250 people gathered for the event. But good things happened that day, too, he said: great acts of bravery and selflessness that helped save the lives of many.
The ceremony was held in the pax shed, next to Green Ramp on what is now Fort Braggs Pope Field. At the time of the accident, it was Pope Air Force Base.
Then as now it was part of a busy hub where paratroopers trained in classrooms, in mock aircraft and in planes that came and went day and night on the adjacent air field.
There were nearly 500 paratroopers from different regiments on Green Ramp early on the afternoon of March 23, 1994, according to an authoritative Army history of the days events and the militarys response to the disaster. Many were outside, practicing jump moves or sitting on the ground with their backs to the airfield, waiting to load onto a pair of C-141 Starlifters to go up for a jump. Others were in classrooms at the jumpmaster school nearby.
About 2:10 p.m., two aircraft coming in to land at Pope an F-16D Fighting Falcon and a C-130 Hercules transport collided in the air. The C-130 landed safely, but the pilots of the F-16D ejected and the fighter plane plummeted to the ground, the Army said, ricocheting across the tarmac and sliding into one of the parked C-141 Starlifters. Both planes exploded in flames, hurling searing-hot metal through the air and spewing 55,000 gallons of fuel onto Green Ramp.
Like a burning tornado
The resulting fireball, described by some as about 75 feet in diameter, rolled toward the soldiers like a burning tornado, churning huge pieces of hot metal as it came. Some paratroopers tried to run, but tripped over their packs and other equipment on the ground. Others tried to dive for cover, leaving as little of their bodies as possible exposed to the flames.
In oral histories in the Armys account, soldiers recall looking up when the heat had passed to see everything on fire: trees, grass, fellow soldiers, their own clothing.
Richard Clapp, then a private in the 2nd Battalion of the 82nd Airbornes 505th Infantry Regiment, was there for what would have been his first jump with the division. He turned at the sound of the explosion just in time to see a fireball coming.
Clapp, then just six months in the Army, tripped trying to get away, fell, and the fire rolled over him. When the heat had passed, he got up and was trying to help other soldiers when someone noticed he was burning, too, and tackled him to put out the flames.
Immediately, soldiers began using the life-saving skills they had learned in preparation for combat. They used water from their canteens, their clothing, their bare hands to try to put out the flames on fellow soldiers, whose uniforms were soaked with fuel and kept reigniting.
Medics who were on hand for the training went to work and others came quickly, applying tourniquets and administering fluids to keep the injured from going into shock. Soldiers ripped apart the jump master school, pulling down doors, pieces of wood or metal that could be used as stretchers. They commandeered all kinds of vehicles, including civilian cars, to get the wounded to Womack Army Medical Center before the ambulances could even arrive.
Medical staff at Womack sprung into action, converting different wards of the hospital into operating rooms and setting up additional space in the parking lot. Wounded eventually also would be sent to area hospitals and to the burn centers at UNC-Chapel Hill and Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Some were burned over nearly every part of their body. There were severed limbs, broken bones, inhalation injuries, even shrapnel wounds from the live ammunition on the fighter plane that popped off in the heat.
It did not beat us
Judson Jay Nelson, who was a lieutenant then in the 2nd Battalion of the 504th, suffered burns on his back, legs and hands, had to learn to walk and feed himself again, and was still having surgeries a year after the accident.
He didnt mention any of that when he addressed the crowd Monday as a lieutenant colonial and commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg. He told the audience, which included active-duty paratroopers, survivors of the accident and family members of those killed or injured, about the people who helped him and helped each other that day and for months after.
It did not beat us, said Nelson, who still bears scars. It did not defeat us.
While the three units that lost soldiers the 1st Brigade Combat Team and the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry regiments have held events commemorating anniversaries of the accident, the 82nd has seldom marked it.
When it did, Clapp wanted to be there. With burns over 45 percent of his body, he medically retired from the Army three years after the accident and started a computer store in the community of Julian, near Greensboro.
He wanted to come to the ceremony, he said, to honor those who had lost their lives and to reunite with some of the soldiers he had served with and not seen since he was evacuated to Texas for treatment.
He hasnt forgotten the crash, but he doesnt dwell on it, he said.
(Stuff) happens, he said. You either let it tear you apart or you pick up the pieces and move on. Thats sort of the nature of a paratrooper.