"I was only in the military six months when the disaster happened," recalled Richard Clapp. He was 19 years old on March 23, 1994, fresh out of basic training and jump school. He'd been at Fort Bragg just three weeks. That afternoon he stood on Green Ramp waiting to make his first official jump with the 82nd Airborne.
He never got the chance. Instead, he lived through the Green Ramp disaster, one of the U.S. military's worst peacetime accidents.
A transport plane collided in mid-air with a fighter jet above Pope Air Force Base. The jet hit the runway and skidded into another plane, sending a giant fireball rolling over the 500 Fort Bragg paratroopers preparing for training jumps.
Twenty-four soldiers died and more than 100 were injured.
Clapp was burned on 45 percent of his body. He underwent more than a dozen surgeries and months of physical therapy before medically retiring from the Army a few years later.
Today Clapp lives with his wife and two children in a small town near Greensboro. He often returns to Fort Bragg to observe the anniversary of the disaster, reconnect with other survivors, and mourn those who didn't make it.
Last year, fellow veterans offered Clapp the chance to make the jump he missed. He traveled to the National Parachute Test Center in Florida, where, after a brief refresher course, he went up in a World War II era plane to make a series of military-style slack line jumps.
"It was amazing to jump out of an aircraft that had actually dropped paratroopers in World War II," said Clapp. "I felt exhilaration again. I felt like redemption."
And the landing, he said, was perfect. "Even though I hadn't done that in 20 years, it was still there."
Ft. Bragg Stories is a collaboration between the Fayetteville Observer and WUNC's American Homefront Project to commemorate a century of history at Fort Bragg through personal narratives. You can hear other stories in the series here. If you'd like to share your Fort Bragg story, you can send it here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org