Survivors mark 20-year anniversary of Pope Air Force Base Green Ramp crash
Jay Nelson remembers that it was a beautiful day. A day that was shattered in an instant by the explosion, confusion and a wave of fire.
That day at Pope Air Force Base - the day an air crash sent a fireball sweeping over ranks of paratroopers - was 20 years ago. One of the deadliest peacetime disasters in Army history has a seemingly small place in the service's official memory, but the horrors of March 23, 1994, are locked in the minds of survivors.
Hundreds of soldiers and airmen were near Green Ramp - where paratroopers board planes - on what was still Pope Air Force Base when an F-16 fighter collided with a C-130 cargo plane over the airfield.
The C-130, though damaged, was able to land. But the F-16 pilots ejected, and the jet slammed into the tarmac, skidded across the runway and tore into a C-141 cargo jet.
A fireball and debris exploded over an area filled with paratroopers waiting for a routine training jump.
Twenty-four soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were killed, and more than 100 others were injured.
In the weeks after the tragedy, as dozens of soldiers remained hospitalized, flags across Fayetteville and Fort Bragg were flown at half-staff and motorists burned their headlights during the day in a show of respect.
On this 20th anniversary of the disaster, a group of survivors and their families are gathering on Fort Bragg. On Monday, the 82nd Airborne Division will host a memorial to those lost, a rare official remembrance.
The day was off to a good start when Jay Nelson, then a young lieutenant with 2nd Battalion of the 82nd's 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, stepped onto Green Ramp.
Nelson, now a lieutenant colonel, was one of hundreds of paratroopers getting set for a "Hollywood" jump - one unburdened by extra equipment.
"We were going to be home in time for 'Oprah,'" said Nelson, now commander of Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion. "It was going to be great."
Even the weather was cooperating, he said. "It was a beautiful day. It was rare and warm and beautiful - puffy white clouds and Carolina blue sky."
From somewhere, a thought crossed his mind. It was a quote, attributed to Sioux leader Crazy Horse, that now adorns a wall in Nelson's office.
"I thought, 'Today is a good day to die,'" he said.
In 1994, Green Ramp bore little resemblance to the current complex that serves paratroopers as they prepare for training jumps or hosts families as they welcome troops home from war. In the two decades since the crash, Pope itself has become an Army airfield rather than an Air Force base.
Twenty years ago, before more than $100million in new facilities, Green Ramp was basically a wide open space off the runway. There was a small shed and a line of mock cargo planes.
Nelson stood in the back of a formation as leaders briefed soldiers for the jump.
"It was another day at the office for us," Nelson said. "It was going to be awesome. Then, of course, things changed a little."
First, he heard two pops - what he learned later were the sounds of the pilots ejecting from their doomed F-16.
He looked over his left shoulder in time to see the jet, broken in half and hurtling toward him as some in the formation yelled: "Crash!"
"I took two steps and I was diving for the ground, and the fireball swept over me," Nelson said. "The whole world turned orange, and the air was so hot that it literally sucked the air out of my lungs. And I blacked out."
Nelson came to moments later, face down and on fire.
With flames licking his face, he tore off his uniform and jumped to his feet.
"Who's hurt? Who's hurt?" Nelson recalls yelling.
An arm's length away, a young soldier had been hit in the head by part of the wreckage, he said.
"I could tell that he was gone because he was already starting to turn that gray color, and I realized at that point that something really, really bad had happened," Nelson said. "It didn't quite dawn on me what exactly had happened, but I knew something really, really bad had happened."
Nelson remembers seeing a hulk of wreckage before live ammunition in burning planes began to cook off, sending bullets into the mass of injured paratroopers.
"We were trying to figure out if we were under attack, if it was a terrorist attack or an accident or a combination of both," Nelson said. "We didn't know what the heck was going on."
Richard Clapp, a private with the 2nd Battalion of the 82nd's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had been in the Army just six months. The March 23 jump was supposed to be his first with the 82nd.
As he stood waiting at Green Ramp, he heard a noise and turned in time to see the fireball.
"What the hell was that?" Clapp remembers asking a nearby sergeant. "Run!" the sergeant screamed in response.
Clapp tripped over ruck sacks. He did not get away from the flames. A piece of the F-16 flew over him, but it was the fireball that did the damage.
He was badly burned over 45 percent of his body, including his back, arms and face.
But, as witnesses say was the case with many injured soldiers, Clapp kept going on adrenaline and training.
"I knew I was injured," he said. "I just didn't recognize the severity."
Clapp tried to help soldiers who were down until he was tackled himself by someone who saw that he was on fire.
There on the charred grass of Green Ramp, Clapp said, time slowed.
Nearby, then-2nd Lt. Dave Connolly was in a small, windowless classroom attending an air movement operations class.
"We heard the explosion, and then the lights went out," said Connolly, now a lieutenant colonel and public affairs officer for U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
He could not believe what he saw when he stepped out of the building.
In the moments after the disaster, survivors say, Green Ramp looked like a war zone. Wreckage from the crash was still burning among the injured and the dead.
"It was just chaos," Connolly said. "But real quickly, people started to take charge. People understood that if you weren't helping, then you got out of the way."
Soldiers and airmen worked together to fight fires and treat the injured.
In some cases, the first rescuers beat out flames on soldiers with their bare hands.
They commandeered military vehicles or used their own to rush injured paratroopers a little more than a mile to Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg
Less than a year after the tragedy, at least 35 of the soldiers who took part in the rescue effort were honored with the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest peacetime award.
Among the recipients was Staff Sgt. Daniel Price, who died after he jumped on top of a fellow soldier to save her from the blast.
The Air Force originally gave out no awards for the airmen who rushed to the scene.
"There was a decision made that day, or shortly after that day, that we did not feel it would be appropriate to recognize Air Force folks because we had just killed 24 Fort Bragg soldiers and really badly wounded 100 others," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bobby O. Floyd said in 2003.
In 1994, Floyd was commander of Pope's 23rd Wing at the time of the crash. And he returned to the Air Force base nearly a decade later, when officials finally recognized 11 airmen with medals for heroism in response to the crash.
Patricia Horoho, then a major and chief nurse in Womack's emergency department, thought the first report of the crash was a drill.
Now a lieutenant general in charge of Army Medical Command, Horoho wrote about the hospital's response to the tragedy a year after the crash.
According to her account, the first of the injured were at the hospital within minutes.
Horoho described the first hour as "controlled chaos" as waves of injured soldiers were brought in. The hospital was in the middle of a shift change, so extra staff was on hand.
Still, injured soldiers on gurneys lined hallways and conference rooms. Patients without severe injuries were asked to go to civilian hospitals.
Margaret Tippy, then a spokeswoman for the hospital, rushed to a command center from her office outside the main hospital.
As she ran across a street, she said, she was almost hit by a car carrying a burned soldier to the hospital. She saw other vehicles with injured soldiers stacked on or in them.
"I stopped and watched in horror," Tippy said. Twenty years after that day, her voice still cracks with emotion as she tells the story.
A boot fell from the back of one of the trucks carrying the wounded. Tippy said she watched smoke curl out. She remembers the smell of burned flesh.
"It was just amazing what soldiers did," Tippy said. "I was shocked. I was really amazed."
In the aftermath, Tippy had to work with reporters from around the world. Within days, President Bill Clinton was on Fort Bragg to visit the survivors.
Today, Tippy is a media relations officer for Army Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. That day at Fort Bragg sticks with her.
Sometimes, she said, she will run into someone who was at Womack that day. Often, she'll start crying before anyone says a word.
Two decades after the tragedy, little remains other than the memories of the survivors and their families.
The survivors said they know of only one memorial, a small monument outside the headquarters for 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. That unit was hit hardest.
Clapp, who lives near Greensboro, will return to Fort Bragg today to meet with other survivors. He said the lack of official recognition of the tragedy has been frustrating over the years.
He has kept in touch with some of his fellow soldiers, but he said Monday's service will be the first official memorial that he was informed of.
"I am looking forward to it," he said.
Since the 1994 crash, at least two ceremonies have been held on Fort Bragg related to the disaster.
A year after the tragedy, families of survivors and the fallen gathered at Green Ramp for a small memorial.
Every year since, survivors come on their own to visit the site, including Jay Nelson and his family. They bring flowers to leave at the 504th memorial and spend part of their day next to the airfield.
"No matter where we've been in the world, we always make sure that happens," Nelson said.
On the 10-year anniversary, the 82nd Airborne Division held a ceremony, Nelson said.
This year, the 82nd will again have a service to remember those killed or injured in the disaster.
While official notice of the losses has been small, the ripples of the tragedy spread.
Volatile fuel that contributed to the disaster is no longer in use by the Air Force, which also abandoned the practice of stationing dissimilar aircraft - like the slow-moving C-130 and fast-moving F-16 - together in the same air wing.
In the aftermath, Air Force investigators blamed both the pilot of the F-16 and air traffic controllers for the crash. The former's judgment was "delayed and questionable," according to a report. The two F-16 pilots who ejected survived the disaster.
Community donations for the survivors' and victims' families formed the basis of what is now the Fort Bragg Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to military families.
Mostly, though, that day and its aftermath have been seared in the memories of survivors, the rescuers and the loved ones of those who died.
"You'll never forget what happened," Margaret Tippy said. "We went through something that will stay with us forever.
"It was just such a monumental experience," she said. "Those burned - I can't imagine the pain they've been living with all these years - young men and women with their whole lives ahead of them. I admire them so much."
Clapp was one of those young men.
He was taken to Womack with a load of other soldiers in the back of a "deuce and a half" - a two-and-a-half ton Army truck.
Clapp remembers walking into Womack Army Medical Center and sitting in a chair. He remembers nothing else of the next three days.
He woke up in San Antonio, at Fort Sam Houston's Brooke Army Medical Center. That is where the Army sends its burn victims.
Two years later, Clapp was medically retired.
In all, he's had 14 surgeries, including skin grafts, and he is still scarred from the explosions.
He carries the physical reminders of his injuries, but he said he does not dwell on the crash and the personal cost.
But he thinks about it every day.
Jay Nelson was another of those young men.
For an hour after the crash, Beth Nelson - who was at work in Fayetteville - was unaware of the disaster or her husband's injuries.
But as he lay on a gurney in Womack, Jay Nelson saw a familiar face - a chaplain and family friend whom he asked to contact his wife.
The message the chaplain passed along was simple: Jay Nelson probably had some broken ribs and "wasn't going to be as pretty" as he once was.
But in truth, the prognosis was much worse. At first, doctors didn't think he would survive.
He and his wife had been married for just nine months. She worked at a tutoring center in Fayetteville.
When Beth Nelson was told that Jay was hurt, she was in shock, uncertain whether to leave work. Finally, a military wife showed up and asked what she was still doing there.
On the way to Fort Bragg, Beth Nelson called her mother and prayed, then called her husband's mother, who at the time was recovering from cancer-related surgery.
At Womack, Beth Nelson sat in a crowded room with other wives, some of whom were told that their husbands had died.
"It was just chaos," she recalled.
When someone came to give her an update on Jay Nelson, Beth Nelson had one simple question: "Is he alive?" she asked.
The "yes" was a wash of relief for her. She later learned that officials were set to tell her that her husband was not expected to survive, but the messenger couldn't bear to give her the bad news.
When she got to see her husband, she barely recognized him.
"I knew it was him because I could see his eyes, but he was very swollen," she said.
Jay Nelson was soon transferred, along with dozens of other soldiers, to Brooke's burn unit. He would spend 63 days there, 45 of them in the intensive care unit.
Two decades later, he and his wife are using their own experiences to help Fort Bragg's wounded soldiers and their families. The Warrior Transition Battalion that he commands is set up to help soldiers who have been hurt get back to duty or move into civilian life.
The Nelsons said they can relate to some of the difficulties facing these soldiers. Their advice comes from their own lives.
"Tell the people that you love you love them. Make sure that people know that you care," Jay Nelson said. "And understand that a day at the office may not be a day at the office."