A week of tragedies tested Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane 25 years ago
By JIM CAMDEN | The Spokesman-Review | Published: June 23, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Fairchild Air Force Base and the city to the west went into mourning twice on the third week of June 1994.
The week began warm and sunny, with the base preparing for an open house the following Sunday. It ended with the base hospital closed, walls scarred from bullets and floors stained with blood. The burnt wreckage of the base’s last B-52 was scattered near the runway.
“It seems like someone is trying to test us,” a Fairchild spokesman said shortly after the giant warplane went down.
Between Monday, when a mentally unstable former airman would go on a rampage through the base medical complex, and Friday, when the huge bomber would crash while practicing unsafe maneuvers for an upcoming air show, 10 would die and some 22 would be wounded. The Spokane community’s medical and emergency services would be stretched to its limits.
Bad news from Spokane would bump the O.J. Simpson trial as the lead story on some network newscasts.
Investigations of the two separate incidents would call into question decisions made by Air Force officials at Fairchild and elsewhere.
More than anything else, Dean Mellberg wanted a career in the military. But whether it was the structure of the armed services, the demands of the job he was assigned or peculiarities of Mellberg’s character which would later be diagnosed as “adult onset autism,” the Air Force was never a good fit.
As early as basic training, some Air Force psychologists recommended he be discharged, but they were regularly overridden. After he was assigned to Fairchild as an electronics technician, Mellberg continued to have problems.
That’s when David Knight, one of the base’s chaplains, met Mellberg in the fall of 1993. He talked with the young airman, who was having trouble with his roommate and his work assignments. Mellberg was a little bit different, a little immature, he thought.
“He was so totally alone,” Knight said recently.
One night, when he was the chaplain on duty, Knight was called to pick up Mellberg from the Sacred Heart Medical Center psychiatric ward, where he was being released after a thorough evaluation.
On the way back to the base, “we had a long conversation about how he wanted to stay in the Air Force,” Knight recalled recently. The chaplain went with Mellberg for his meeting with the commander, but before they even sat down, it was clear the airman was being sent to Wilford Hall, the Air Force medical center in Texas.
Knight said he called the base psychiatrist, Maj. Thomas Brigham, to suggest Mellberg stay at Fairchild where they could keep an eye on him. Brigham said no, he was going to Wilford Hall for treatment.
In restraints, Mellberg was put on an Air Force transport plane and spent about four months in the hospital’s psychiatric unit. The medical staff urged he be discharged with a plan for long-term treatment and a 20% disability rating. His mother, Lois Mellberg, lobbied her congressman, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan, for help to keep Dean in. It worked.
In January 1994, Mellberg was released from Wilford and returned to duty, but not to Fairchild. He was sent to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he again ran into trouble by riding his bike across the base golf course then refusing to answer questions when the security police stopped him. He was placed under a new psychiatric watch, and within two months of arriving at Cannon, he was discharged from the Air Force, escorted off base and left at a nearby hotel. He had no disability rating and no treatment plan.
After traveling around the country, he returned to Fairchild about five months later. He brought with him a MAK-90 military style semi-automatic rifle that he purchased out of the trunk of a car and a 70-round magazine. His first two victims were the people he blamed for ending his military career: Brigham and Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist.
An interrupted nap
Joneil Del Rosario accompanied his sister-in-law Amy and four-month old niece on an errand to the Fairchild hospital the afternoon of June 20 to fill a prescription. It was hot outside and the air-conditioning was on in the car, so Joneil said he’d stay in the car with the baby while Amy picked up the prescription.
Joneil, 15, who was spending the summer with his brother and sister-in-law, fell asleep in the car while waiting, then woke to the sound of bangs. Assuming it was fireworks, he didn’t think much of it until he looked out the window and noticed “a lot of movement.”
The bangs started getting louder, and when he looked the other way he saw a man with a gun. “He stopped and started shooting people coming out of the hospital.”
Joneil ducked down, but then decided to get a closer look, so he opened the car door slowly to get out. Not smart, he acknowledged recently, but, “Hey, I was 15.” He saw Mellberg on the other side of the car, and Mellberg saw him. When the gunman moved one way, he moved the other, back and forth.
“I thought, ‘I gotta get out of here. People are getting shot.’” Joneil reached into the car, grabbed his niece in the carrier, and ran for the hospital annex, the building Mellberg had just left. People all around him were running, too.
“I was running in a zigzag. They were getting shot. I kept yelling ‘Zigzag! Zigzag!’” He made it to the annex, ran up the stairs with others to a room where they barricaded themselves in. They tried to keep his niece quiet whenever she started crying. They didn’t have a bottle with milk or formula, so they put drops of Sprite soda on their fingers and let her suck them because “that’s all there was.”
They stayed barricaded in the office for hours. From time to time, Joneil would look out the window and see the security police arrive, set up and advance.
After a security officer came to tell them it was safe, Joneil spent several more hours being questioned by investigators and waiting with his four-month-old niece for his sister-in-law, who was sequestered elsewhere with people from the main hospital building.
One security policeman, Senior Airman Andy Brown, had arrived on a patrol bicycle after hearing the call on the radio. As Mellberg came out of the hospital, his rifle appeared to jam. Brown ordered Mellberg to drop his weapon. Mellberg didn’t. Brown fired twice. One round hit Mellberg in the head and killed him, but not before he had killed four and wounded 22 others. One of the wounded, Michelle Sigman, was pregnant; she survived but her unborn daughter did not.
Called to the scene
Around 4 p.m., chaplain Knight was getting ready to go home when he and another chaplain got the call to go immediately to the base hospital. As they approached, they passed people running the other way. A physician’s assistant he knew urged him to hurry. “You guys have to get up there,” she said as she ran by.
They arrived to find a troop carrier parked in front of the hospital annex, security police still searching the area and a tarp covering a form on the ground – Mellberg, he later discovered. One wounded woman was being worked on before being evacuated, and Knight stopped to pray with her.
The base commander, Col. William Brooks, eventually sent Knight down the road leading to the hospital complex, which wasn’t within the secured confines of the base, to intercept the wives of Brigham and London and divert them to a building away from the hospital. Although Susan Brigham was adamant about seeing her husband right away, he managed to get them to make the turn onto the road for that other building. “I’ve always thanked God for that,” he said.
Later he returned to the hospital, walking through it with Brooks, trying to avoid puddles of blood. They came upon the mother of 8-year-old Christin McCarron, the youngest victim Mellberg killed, telling her son why he wouldn’t see his sister again. Remember how our dog went to heaven? she asked. Yes, replied the boy. Christin’s going to heaven to be with our dog. “She had incredible presence of mind,” Knight said.
In a nearby room, an ER doctor was with the little girl’s body talking to himself, saying, “I couldn’t save her.” Knight remembers saying some “nebulous prayers” with the doctor before “I numbed out.”
Later he was sent to the security police offices where he saw Brown, the policeman who’d stopped Mellberg, sitting on a bench. “He was numb. He was frozen like the rest of us.”
One more flight
Throughout the week, Mellberg’s victims as young as 4 and as old as 71 clung to life in intensive care units in the city. Base officials held memorials but continued to prepare for the upcoming open house and air show in an effort to prove their men and women could overcome the tragedy.
It would be the last open house for Fairchild as a B-52 base. It would lift the spirits of base personnel and the nearby community.
On Wednesday evening, Lt. Col. Ken Huston, a B-52 radar navigator who served as operations officer of the bomb squadron, got a phone call at home. Huston was on vacation and preparing to be transferred to another base, but had been at the base hospital on Monday afternoon with one of his children. They were in another part of the building and not injured, his wife Elisabeth said recently.
The call wasn’t about the shooting or the memorials, but the upcoming air show for the open house. Someone was refusing to fly on the plane with the pilot, Lt. Col Arthur “Bud” Holland. Huston agreed to take his place. Practice was Friday afternoon.
“We’ve got so much to do,” his wife said. His response, she recalled: “It’s just one more flight.”
On Friday morning, Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall flew into Fairchild for a memorial service and to visit some of the victims in the hospital with House Speaker Tom Foley.
Widnall refused to talk to reporters who had gathered outside the Deaconess Medical Center entryway to ask questions about the handling of Mellberg’s service and discharge, which was already being reported in The Spokesman-Review. She had to get to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, a spokesperson said, where she was attending a service competition known as the Air Force rodeo.
Foley, who did stop to talk, told reporters Mellberg’s service would be fully explored and said for the first time he would support the proposed ban on assault weapons that was in Congress.
At Fairchild that afternoon, military personnel and their families gathered on or near the tarmac to watch the B-52 practice a routine for the Sunday air show.
At the controls was Holland, who had two reputations on the base: the best B-52 pilot, and the riskiest. The 20-minute routine started with a maximum thrust takeoff, a banked turn around the control tower, then a series of steep climbs and banked turns with the wings at about 45 degrees and multiple passes over the runway.
With crowds cheering and video cameras rolling, the bomber worked through the routine and was scheduled to land. But another plane was on the runway, so it pulled up, raised the landing gear and began another sharply angled turn around the tower. About halfway through the turn, it began to lose speed and altitude, the angle of the wings went nearly perpendicular to the ground and the plane stalled. With no lift, the plane collapsed into the ground, wing first, and exploded near an area that included concrete storage units for the base’s nuclear weapons.
Back at her house in Spokane, Elisabeth Huston didn’t know anything was wrong until one of her daughter’s friends called to ask about a crash at Fairchild, and she knew that the B-52 was likely the only plane flying. Shortly afterward, a retired Air Force officer arrived to say he was driving her to the base. He didn’t say Ken had died, so she assumed she was being taken to the hospital to see him.
As they drove to a headquarters building, they passed the still-burning wreckage of the crash. Still, she assumed her husband was alive because she hadn’t been told otherwise. “Obviously, I was in denial,” she said recently.
In the building, she and the other wives of the crew members were told there were no survivors. She went into shock.
Knight was headed back to Fairchild from a softball game when he saw a huge cloud of dark smoke. When he got to the base gate, the guard said he was needed on the flight line and “you need to get there right away.”
The wives of the four officers on board the bomber were already there. The field was full of smoldering wreckage and body parts. Holland’s wife was convinced that in the final seconds, he had made sure the plane crashed in the safest place it could. Knight didn’t contradict her, but he had doubts.
He’d seen the bombers flying at dangerous angles over Fairchild before, including at base ceremonies attended by generals. A month earlier, another B-52 left for its new home at Minot Air Force Base with a similar maneuver, taking off, pulling up and turning at a sharp angle as it departed the base air space.
“That was the culture,” Knight said.
With Holland and Huston were Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, the bomb squadron commander who was copiloting the plane, and Col. Robert Wolff, the wing vice commander, who was about to be reassigned to the Pentagon.
McGeehan had previously asked that Holland be grounded. His widow Jodie later said her husband was the copilot on the flight because he wouldn’t let any of the men under his command fly with Holland. All three were on the plane “to keep an eye on Bud,” Elisabeth Huston Silver, who has since remarried, said recently.
Asked about the crash at McChord Air Force Base, Secretary Widnall insisted the plane wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. The subsequent crash investigation contradicted that. It said the plane was flying at angles far beyond regulations and the instructions of Boeing, the manufacturer.
Fairchild canceled the open house.
As a result of a 1987 crash at Fairchild, Air Force regulations had been changed to say special permission had to be granted to do unusual maneuvers for an air show with a large plane like a B-52. That permission from the Air Combat Command was rarely given, and in this case, it wasn’t sought.
Col. Bill Pellerin, the base operations commander who flew the routine with Holland a few days before the crash and didn’t order changes, was court-martialed and eventually agreed to a plea bargain. But colonels and generals above him who saw Holland fly similar maneuvers and praised the pilot rather than ordering him to stop were let “off the hook,” the former Elisabeth Huston said.
Knight agreed. The Air Force tried at first to say it was all Holland’s fault, then used Pellerin as a scapegoat, he said.
In announcing the results of the investigation into the crash, Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffith, commander of the 12th Air Force, said large planes would not be given permission to do such risky maneuvers in the future. Period.
Knight transferred from Fairchild, was later stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, and eventually retired from the Air Force. He left the ministry and went to work for the Veterans Administration, where he now works as a paralegal.
In Denver in 1999 when the Columbine High School massacre happened, he recalls thinking “you people don’t realize this isn’t unique. This is modern America.”
What he saw and experienced that June week 25 years ago left him with post traumatic stress disorder, although until recently he didn’t know that’s what it was. He recently completed a 49-day treatment program for PTSD with the VA.
Joneil Del Rosario joined the Air Force when he turned 19, and became a security officer, in part, he said recently, because of what he witnessed in and around the Fairchild hospital that day. He left the military after a few years and now works as a business manager for Boeing.
“I think about it every day,” he said recently. “I see it vividly.”
Andy Brown, the security policeman who downed Mellberg, was assigned to Hawaii after the shooting. He eventually left the Air Force and returned to Spokane. He wrote a book “Warnings Unheeded,” about the shootings and the crash.
Investigations into Mellberg’s service and discharge showed significant mistakes made by Air Force officials. His victims who were in the military weren’t able to sue, but the civilians who were caught in his rampage could, and did. The Air Force agreed to settle the claims for a total of $17 million in 2001, but didn’t concede any wrongdoing.
Jay Zucchetto, the father of the two youngest children Mellberg’s wounded, Anthony, then 4, and Janessa, then 5, said he tries not to dwell on the past.
“I try to celebrate the life of the people who are here, and the first responders and doctors that didn’t allow (Anthony) to die,” he said. Among the most seriously wounded, doctors first feared the boy wouldn’t live, and then thought if he did he would never walk because of the injuries that affected one leg.
“One day he just did,” Zucchetto said, adding the settlement helped pay his daughter’s college and his son’s living expenses. He said he no longer expects the Air Force to admit it was at fault in the way it handled Mellberg.
“If I’m waiting for that, I may as well be over in the corner, holding my breath and turning blue,” he said.
Huston’s widow, now Elisabeth Silver, remained in Spokane after the crash, was a teacher and is now a vice principal with Spokane Public Schools. The base and the Air Force essentially abandoned the family, and she hasn’t heard anything from them since about a year after the crash.
Neither she nor Zucchetto, who also lives in Spokane, were contacted by the base and invited to attend Thursday’s ceremony there to mark the 25th anniversary of the shootings and the crash. She said she wasn’t aware that Fairchild has a monument to the victims of the Mellberg shootings and the B-52 crash with their names carved in stone.
Asked Friday about that omission, Col. Derek Salmi, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, apologized for failing to include surviving family members in the memorial.
“We deeply regret not providing them the opportunity to honor their loved ones’ memories and will ensure they and other family members, are included in future memorial services,” Salmi said in an email.
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