Re­mem­ber­ing Ar­row Air

First re­spon­ders re­call avi­a­tion dis­as­ter 33 years later

The Central Voice - - Front Page - BY ADAM RAN­DELL

Mau­rice Geange rides shot­gun in a small car nav­i­gat­ing the gravel road to the Silent Wit­ness Memo­rial site just east of Gan­der.

As the car bumps over snow cov­ered pot­holes, his eyes are fo­cused on the tree line to the right, where he can still see the “wall of fire”.

It’s been 33 years since the flames were doused, but for the Gan­der res­i­dent, it’s a mem­ory that can never be ex­tin­guished.

Geange, an air­port fire­fighter at the time, was part of the first re­sponse team for the Ar­row Air crash, which killed 248 Amer­i­can sol­diers and eight crew, the morn­ing of Dec. 12, 1985.

The sol­diers on board were mem­bers of the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion of the U.S. mil­i­tary – also known as the “Scream­ing Ea­gles.” They were on the fi­nal leg of their DC-8 flight

back to their home base in Fort Camp­bell, Ken­tucky hav­ing served a six-month peace­keep­ing mis­sion on the Si­nai Penin­sula in the Mid­dle East.

The Cana­dian Avi­a­tion Safety Board wasn’t able to de­ter­mine what ex­actly hap­pened, but re­ported ice con­tam­i­na­tion on the lead­ing edge and up­per sur­face of the wing as the prob­a­ble cause.

To this day, it’s the largest avi­a­tion dis­as­ter to have oc­curred on Cana­dian soil.

As the car pulls to a stop, Geange ex­its the ve­hi­cle and makes his way across the bridge to the memo­rial, he’s stand­ing in the path the air­craft cut through the trees for some 300 yards be­fore coming to a rest and ex­plod­ing in a ravine near Gan­der Lake. He points to­wards the Tran­sCanada High­way (TCH), at the top of the hill, re­call­ing the dev­as­ta­tion.

“She must have been all on fire when she struck the top of the hill, and all the way down to where she came to rest,” he said. “Then the fuel must have caught up to her, caus­ing the ex­plo­sion.” Aside from the parts that were ripped from the plane as it de­scended the hill, and a sec­tion of cock­pit, the air­craft had been com­pletely dis­in­te­grated, Geange says.

On the scene, af­ter us­ing his wa­ter sup­ply, Geange would be part of a perime­ter search for sur­vivors, and it was quickly dis­cov­ered there would be none.

The bod­ies of those on the flight, ex­cept for a few thrown from the air­craft, were con­sumed by the flames.

“It’s some­thing that will al­ways be en­trenched in my mind,” he says about dis­cov­er­ing the bod­ies. “It’s not some­thing you carry around with you ev­ery day, as if it’s tor­ment­ing you, but when brought up in con­ver­sa­tion it all comes back.”

As he pre­pares to leave, Geange moves to­wards the site’s memo­rial and re­views the names on the gran­ite ceno­taph; those the crew wanted to save but were un­able to.

Geange wishes it could have been dif­fer­ent, but he knows it couldn’t.

“You can sit back and do what if, what if, but we never had a chance with this one,” he said.

Re­call­ing the past

Word of a pos­si­ble crash reached the fire depart­ment at ap­prox­i­mately 6:45 a.m., the air­port’s fire­fight­ing crew was get­ting ready for a shift change.

Ed­die Humphries was on phone watch,

“I was sit­ting on the ch­ester­field, af­ter clean­ing up, get­ting ready for the on­com­ing shift,” said the North­ern Arm res­i­dent. “All of a sud­den there was a yel­low flash. Peo­ple say there was an ex­plo­sion, but I never heard any­thing.”

Im­me­di­ately, Humphries knew some­thing was wrong.

He got on the hot­line to the tower, try­ing to piece to­gether what had hap­pened.

Humphries said he was in­formed there ap­peared to be a crash at an un­known lo­ca­tion and lit­tle else was known.

Af­ter some dis­cus­sion, he said, the de­ci­sion to re­spond was made.

In slip­pery con­di­tions, be­cause of freez­ing rain, a six­per­son re­sponse crew – made up of Humphries, Geange, Doug Massie, John White, Al­bert Lester and Ernest An­stey – headed down across the run­way, cut­ting through a back­road to gain quicker ac­cess to the TCH, coming out di­rectly across from the crash.

Af­ter Humphries truck had ex­hausted its wa­ter and foam sup­ply, he and Geange car­ried out the ground search.

“There was such a tan­gle of trees and de­bris, it was hard to do any­thing,” re­called Humphries. Sim­ply adding, “We didn’t find any­body alive.”

As they con­tin­ued their work, they would see things that would stay with them for life.

“I saw one fel­low, a full­grown man, prob­a­bly 30 inches long, shrunk with the heat,” he said. “There was an­other guy sit­ting up against a tree, not a mark on him, dead. The way he looked, you’d think he was go­ing to talk you, I guess it was the im­pact (that killed him).”

Humphries at­tended the scene un­til 12 p.m. that day, un­til sent home by the chief be­cause his shift had ended hours be­fore.

Head­ing back to North­ern Arm, he was near the hos­pi­tal when a car in front of him turned on its turn in­di­ca­tor and he saw the yel­low flash of the sin­gle light.

“I slammed on the brakes, al­most get­ting into an ac­ci­dent, I guess the yel­low light caused a flash­back,” he said. “That’s the only time I ever had any­thing like that hap­pen to me.”

Re­turn­ing home, his wife Au­drey was cook­ing pork chops.

“When I walked in the house all I could smell was burn­ing flesh, I just about threw up, I had to leave the house,” he said.

Geange too re­mem­bers the smell.

“It’s a smell you can’t wash off your clothes, and it takes a long time to get the smell off your body,” he said. “We washed our bunker gear in a so­lu­tion that Trans­port Canada got for us, but it couldn’t get rid of the smell. Trans­port Canada took all the gear and burned it.

“I’ll al­ways smell that, I’ll never for­get it. It’s a smell like noth­ing else.”

Both Humphries and Geange would con­tinue work­ing the crash site scene in the days fol­low­ing, but the full ef­fect of what they had wit­nessed didn’t re­ally sink in un­til af­ter their work had been com­pleted.

Geange chalked it up to train­ing.

“At the time, you don’t have time to sit around and think, you train for years for these types of sit­u­a­tions,” he said. “When that train­ing kicks in, you be­come so busy that you don’t even re­al­ize what you’re into un­til af­ter the fact.”

At the time of pub­li­ca­tion, both the Town of Gan­der and Fort Camp­bell were pre­par­ing to mark the 33rd an­niver­sary of the Ar­row Air crash. This year will be the last of­fi­cial memo­rial to take place at the orig­i­nal Fort Camp­bell site as a new memo­rial is be­ing pre­pared to honour those who lost their lives.

ADAM RAN­DELL—THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

Mau­rice Geange re­views the names of those he tried to save 33 years ago at Silent Wit­ness Memo­rial, just east of Gan­der The Gan­der res­i­dent was with the air­port’s fire depart­ment at the time and part of the six-per­son first re­sponse team to at­tend the Ar­row Air crash site that killed 256 pas­sen­gers and crew

ADAM RAN­DELL—THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

Mau­rice Geange stands in the path­way carved out by the DC-8 as it made its de­cent down the hill. He can still see the wall of fire it cre­ated on its de­cent.

ADAM RAN­DELL—THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

North­ern Arm res­i­dent Ed­die Humphries was the only fire­fighter on duty to wit­ness the Ar­row Air crash as it hap­pened. He can still re­call the yel­low flash of the ex­plo­sion.

THE BEA­CON—FILE PHOTO

Fire­fight­ers and emer­gency re­spon­ders scour the wreck­age af­ter the dead­li­est avi­a­tion dis­as­ter on Cana­dian soil had oc­curred on Dec. 12, 1985.

ADAM RAN­DELL—THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

The 248 sol­diers on board Ar­row Air Flight 1285 were mem­bers of the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion of the U.S. mil­i­tary – also known as the “Scream­ing Ea­gles.” They were on the fi­nal leg of their DC-8 flight back to their home base in Fort Camp­bell, Ken­tucky hav­ing served a six-month peace­keep­ing mis­sion on the Si­nai Penin­sula in the Mid­dle East. There were no sur­vivors.

THE BEA­CON—FILE PHOTO

The Ar­row Air Flight 1285 crashed Dec. 12, 1985 near Gan­der Lake on Boat House Rd, shortly af­ter take-off. There was clothes, lug­gage and bod­ies strewn over a path­way, made by the plane as it bel­lied through the for­est for some 300 yards, col­lid­ing with ev­ery­thing in its wake.

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