A memorial service today at Fort Bragg makes 25 years since the 82nd Airborne Division suffered its biggest one-day loss of life since World War II.
The disaster occurred at literally, the last place paratroopers were able to feel safe before boarding a plane for a practice jump, or deploying to war – the loading ramp at the Fort Bragg airfield.
The informal terminal area is called The Green Ramp just off a runway at the airfield, now called Pope Field, that serves Fort Bragg.
About 500 paratroopers were on the ground there, preparing for practice jumps, when an Air Force F-16 fighter jet struck a large transport plane in mid-air collision as both vehicles were coming to land.
“And the small fighter jet that was most significantly damaged continued to try to make it down the runway. And as it disintegrated it started a fireball,” said historian John Aarsen, director of the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum. “There was a unit getting ready to do a normal everyday jump that happens here at Fort Bragg, and they happen to be in the path of that fireball.”
A fireball moving at hundreds of miles per hour.
Some had time to take a step or two away, or dive for cover. Others were caught completely by surprise by the wall of flaming jet fuel and aircraft debris.
“People started screaming and hollering and running in different directions,” said Jason Savell who was then an 18-year-old private first class.
“I just turned to run and that's when I felt the blast hit me. Threw me, threw me through the air, not sure how far, and I rolled over several times and landed laying face down. And just remember just being really hot, and I didn't feel any pain or anything, just numb. But I pulled my face up and I started looking around and my hair, my hair [had] totally been burned and it was falling out,” Savell recounts.
He lost his lower left leg and had burns covering much of his body. He remembers paratroopers trying to help each other amid the chaos.
“[I] looked around and I saw people running around and other people tackling them trying to put them out because they were on fire.”
Twenty-four men died as a result of the collision, and more than 80 were injured, many with horrific burns.
Jay Nelson of Richmond, Virginia was a 24-year-old second lieutenant.
“When I first woke up, I sat up and I put my hands on my knee, and I realized that my leg was still burning,” he said. “So I tried to pat that out with my hands, but the petroleum stuck to my hand, flaming in my fingers. So I put my hands out in the dirt …I took some big old gobs of dirt and then smothered the fire that was still burning on my left leg.”
Nelson was burned over nearly half his body.
He managed to stand and was just beginning to collect his thoughts and trying to figure out how to help the wounded, when cannon shells in the flaming debris began to go off.
Another paratrooper, who like many uninjured troops nearby had rushed to the scene to help, put him on a truck with other injured soldiers, and it roared off toward the base hospital, Womack Army Medical Center.
“We're all burned, like hands, and trying to kind of walk funny and not bend our knees, flesh hanging off .. we looked like the walking dead,” said Nelson. “And it was just the most uncomfortable ride ever. We hit every bump, and it wasn't painful per se, but yet we were creeped out because we were burned ….you could see the flesh hanging off my hands like somebody had pulled gloves half on, half off. And I knew that my side was burned because a T-shirt was melted to my side and I could see it.”
Nelson said that when he got to the hospital, he saw the incredible job medical staff was doing to handle dozens of casualties, many of them grievously injured.
The effects of the accident still ripple through the lives of the survivors, Aarsen said.
“I think now [it's] about remembrance of that event and about the resiliency, [about] those paratroopers that did survive, and what they've done after that event, and how [some] of them have been successful, both in the military and civilian life,” he said.
Both Nelson and Savell were among those that had to be evacuated to burn units at other hospitals and spend years in recovery.
And both lost friends and acquaintances in the disaster, and both still suffer some of the effects of their injuries.
Nelson is now the branch chief of operational planning for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Savell was the last of the injured paratroopers discharged from the hospital, five months after the collision. He left the Army then, and said that he soon began acting out, drinking and fighting.
But he was able to put that behind him, partly because what happened on the Green Ramp has soaked in.
He said now pretty much all he does is work, remodeling houses and a couple of other jobs. And at high speed.
“Twenty-four men died in that plane crash,” Savell said. “They didn’t get to go on. I’m driven. I feel like I'm living 24 lifetimes. I feel like I have to live for them.”
And he’s begun volunteering for the military, working with research panels, using his painfully-won experience to help them evaluate things like new burn treatment methods and prosthetics.
The effects of the disaster ripple down through the division, too, said Aarsen, the historian.
“It reminded everyone about the hard business about being a paratrooper, and that it's not easy to be Airborne, but it's fun,” Aarsen said. “But Green Ramp reminded them that it's serious business, that every day is serious business and you are risking your life when you're doing this.”
One important change after the accident, he said, was that the Air Force no longer trains with fighter jets at Pope.
So, Green Ramp stands as a kind of memorial, and feels a little more like that last safe place once again.