December 12, 1985
***SPECIAL TO THE ATLANTIC TIDES***
For the last 30 years, I have not slept on December 12th.
When I woke up on Dec 12 1985, I had no idea that before this day was over my life would be changed forever. I was then, a Private in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and also a member of the Gander Volunteer Fire Department. I was eager to get into the action.
On that fateful day, thirty years ago, Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed 73 seconds after it had lifted off from Gander runway. Two hundred and fifty-six US service personnel had perished, 248 members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, and 101st Airborne Division as well as 8 crewmembers. The soldiers were returning home for Christmas from a six-month deployment to Sinai, Egypt. It remains to this day the deadliest aviation disaster in our Canadian history and one of the worst ever encountered by the U.S. military.
Sixty-one seconds after lift-off, Flight 1285 stalled as it crossed the Trans-Canada Highway, about 900 feet from the end of Runway 22. The descent continued and, nine seconds later, the plane’s tail sheered treetops about 3000 feet beyond the departure end of the runway. The impact obliterated the DC-8 and the wreckage came to rest 3 seconds later. Those not killed instantly were cremated by an immense fireball that vaporized and melted a large portion of the plane.
The radio was blasting Pink Floyd’s, “Wish You Were Here” “So, so you think you can tell, heaven from hell, blue skies from pain”. With the sun coming up over the horizon, my pager interrupted the song with a repeated broadcast, “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE, possible plane crash near Gander Lake”. I turned on my emergency flashers and made a U-turn as I headed to the Fire Hall to suit up. I had no idea what to expect. No training could have prepared us for what we were about to encounter!
Within minutes we were on our way to the crash site, which was the longest 10 minutes of my life. The sound of the sirens blasting was deafening, not a word was spoken; our only communication was speculating eye contact.
When we reached the crash scene I could smell and see the steady stream of smoke climbing into the sky. The putrid smell of burning flesh mixed with airplane fuel was sickening. A quick survey of the scene had shown no sign of the plane, just debris. Then, off to the left, I saw it, the huge hellhole of metal, bodies and burning fuel. Those poor souls did not know what hit them!
I remember yelling to my fire partner, “We have to find survivors”. Holding onto the hope that someone could have survived. I recollect seeing a soldier still sitting in his seat, seat belt still on, thrown from the plane without a scratch on him. His arms were stretched out, reaching for the trees in front of him; his fingers tightly wrapped around a branch. I wanted to believe that he could be alive. No such luck. For years I had wondered if only we had arrived a moment earlier, could we have saved him? There were others too, who were mutilated beyond recognition, and still others who did not have a scratch on them. None had survived.
Those who had remained in the fuselage of the plane were thrown to the front as the tail of the plane became the nose and the plane ceased to exist with its precious cargo stacked in the cavity. These soldiers were high readiness and they traveled with all their gear. As we were conducting our search for survivors, we heard what sounded like gun shots. There were rifle rounds going off due to the extreme heat before us. A variety of military weapons and weapon components were strewn throughout the accident site. Also china cups, notes to loved ones, bibles, and a host of other items that should have been shattered but had survived, a child’s tee-shirt that said, “I Survived Gander Newfoundland”, and thinking how ironic it was.
After completing a thorough search and finding only lifeless bodies and appendages, our task was to contain the fire. We were close enough to the lake to set-up a relay with the fire trucks to give us an endless supply of water. One image in particular continues to bother me to this day. While dragging the hose to the inferno in this “hellhole” a distance approximately a couple hundred feet, I did not see any bodies or body parts. When my relief came, I went back to the truck for a break. It was a sight that I can still see today when I close my eyes. There were charred bodies and grotesque parts, some recognizable and some not. I literally had to step on them to get back to the Command Center. The post-crash fire was fed by the contents of the downed aircraft’s recently full fuel tanks. It had taken us nearly four our hours to bring the post-fire under control and approximately thirty hours to completely extinguish.
There were no survivors on Arrow Air Flight 1285; they were not the only ones to pay the ultimate price that day. Numerous members of the Gander Fire Department suffered emotional and mental trauma and the majority of them could no longer continue to fight any more fires. They had seen and had done enough.
In both my occupations in CAF and as a volunteer firefighter, I have witness acts of generosity and kindness on a monumental scale, but I’ve also witnessed acts of grace and courage on an individual basis, and you know what I’ve learned? They all matter. Not every day is going to offer us a chance to save somebody’s life, but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one. Don’t wait to make a difference in somebody’s life. You have something to give, give it now. In true spirit the Kinsmen have given me that opportunity.
Patrick Bowers is a military veteran, and a 15 year volunteer Fire Fighter. He is currently employed with Department Of National Defence. Married to his best friend, Wendy for 34 years; they have one daughter, Megan. Patrick has been a proud member of the Kinsmen Club Sackville for four years.