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Community members gather to mark Ramstein air show disaster anniversary

Sibylle and Hartmut Jatzko, who helped start a support group for survivors and relatives of the 1988 Ramstein air show disaster, speak during a ceremony Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe on Ramstein Air Base.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — In a quiet, wooded patch of land in view of the flightline, community members gathered Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of one of the worst air show disasters in history.

About 100 people — some who were at the air show and survived and relatives of some of the 70 who perished — gathered before a tall memorial stone engraved with the names of the victims and surrounded by fresh flowers.

Some wiped tears from their eyes while Sibylle and Hartmut Jatzko, a gray-haired couple from Krickenbach who have worked over the years with survivors and relatives, spoke.

“Let us not forget the ones that we lost,” Hartmut Jatzko said.

Roland Fuchs can’t forget. Every day he remembers the catastrophe that killed his wife, Carmen, and young daughter, Nadine.

During the ceremony, he stood off to the back, next to two of his daughters with his second wife, Elisabeth. The TV cameras and journalists covering the ceremony made him uncomfortable, he said.

“It’s not easy for me,” he said; the day is supposed to be “a silence day.”

Sibylle Jatzko, a psychologist,  said the ceremony allows family members to “remember the time when their loved ones died; (it’s) to say ‘don’t forget them,’ ” she said.

Shortly before 4 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1988, more than 300,000 spectators were on hand as three aircraft from the Italian air force’s precision-flying team Frecce Tricolori collided during the show’s final aerial maneuver of the day. One of the jets, engulfed in flames, plunged into the crowd below. In addition to the 70 fatalities — including the three pilots — more than 500 people were injured, many with horrific shrapnel and burn wounds.

The tragedy, attributed to pilot error, led to the suspension of all air shows in Germany. The ban has since been lifted, but military aerial acrobatics are still prohibited.

After paying their respects off base, the group attended a private ceremony on base at the crash site.

It was a bittersweet moment for survivor Thomas Wenzel, 48, who drove from Aurach in Bavaria for the day’s events.

Wenzel lost his fiancee and several friends. His lungs were burned and his hair singed. 

“When I’m here, I could stay at the crash site for hours,” he said, because he finds peace there. “When I’m gone, I don’t want to come back anymore.”

But he comes so others don’t forget what happened. “This should not happen again,” he says of air shows with risky aerial demonstrations.

Later in the afternoon, the base hosted a ceremony at the North Side Chapel by a rock monument dedicated to the victims. Local dignitaries and base officials attended, as did a small delegation from the Italian air force.

The lone speaker was Maj. Michael Curtis, an Air Force chaplain at Ramstein who was at the air show that year selling ice cream as a 17-year-old. He and some friends left the show early to beat the traffic. On their way to their car, they heard the crash behind them and turned around to see a fireball and smoke.

Jatzko said the survivors’ support group, which meets informally, gathers at the memorial site every year.

On occasion, Jatzko still receives calls from someone affected by their experience at the air show. Most Americans who were affected have long since left the Ramstein area, but many have shared their stories through the Ramstein Flugtag Memorial site of an online group dedicated to those who lost their lives or a loved one at the air show.

In comments posted to the site, members talk about never being able to go to another air show, of remembering the smell of burning flesh, of living with scars left by flying shrapnel.

“The images and sounds of that day, I can hear and remember like it was yesterday,” reads one comment.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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