Survivors pay tribute to victims of Ramstein disaster 30 years ago
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 28, 2018
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — As the hour drew near to 4 p.m. Tuesday, the hundred or so people standing in the grass near the flight line stood in a circle, clasped hands and bowed their heads.
Thirty years ago, this field dotted with yellow flowers was the scene of one of the most horrific air show disasters in Europe.
The brief ceremony near the spot of the accident on Aug. 28, 1988, was held to remember the 70 victims and hundreds whose lives were changed by the tragedy.
Most of the victims were German, but at least four Americans were killed and scores injured, including Kirt and Laurie Shaffer, 21-year-old newlyweds at the time who were just beginning their lives together. Laurie Shaffer was seriously burned in the disaster; her husband suffered minor wounds.
The Shaffers, who have two grown daughters and live in Washington state, returned to Germany to mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster, their first time back since leaving the country in 1990.
They wanted to show their love and support to the people who lost families, “who were much closer to that spot,” Kirt Shaffer said, where one of three Italian jets that collided in midair careened into the crowd while on fire.
“For me, it’s for closure,” Laurie Shaffer said. “I haven’t been back to that spot since that day. To be back on Ramstein and just experience it, it’s kind of bittersweet … and validates being there that day. And just to honor the people that lost their families.”
Before taking a bus out to the flight line, the Shaffers joined more than 100 survivors and family members for a church service Tuesday in Ramstein village. U.S. military officials and several high-ranking German politicians attended.
Marc-David Jung, who was at the air show as a 4-year-old and still bears burn scars on his face, said the memorial at the church was very “venerable” and the “sympathy was huge.”
Kirt Shaffer said that at the service he met the brother of the Italian pilot, whom investigators faulted for causing the crash during the show’s final, daring maneuver. He gave him a hug.
“I can only imagine what it feels like for him today as he wanders among people that have scars, that pain due to the accident,” Kirt Shaffer said.
Kirt Shaffer was assigned to nearby Kapaun Air Station in the summer of 1988 as an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technician.
Laurie Shaffer joined her new husband that August, just four days before the air show.
They sat front and center, in the first row among the crowd of more than 300,000, watching from the grass next to the flight line.
Laurie suffered second- and third-degree burns over 23 percent of her body, including a severe burn on her left hand that eventually needed a skin graft.
Laurie remembers the day of the air show being hot, humid, partly cloudy – too hot for the sweatshirt and pants she was wearing in a crowd of tank tops and shorts. Being overdressed would turn out to be fortuitous.
The air show started about noon. Military airplanes and helicopters performed demonstrations, but spectators had to wait for the most anticipated act of the day.
“The Italians were going to close the show,” Laurie Shaffer said. “It was pretty obvious that everyone was there to see them. They were so dazzling and so amazing that they were always the ones that closed the show and wowed everyone.”
In the late afternoon, 10 Aermacchi MB-339A jets from the Italian air force’s aerobatic team, Frecce Tricolori, roared over the crowd.
“They actually flew in from behind us, and they were pretty darn close,” Laurie Shaffer said. “You can’t hear them coming until they’re right over you. Of course, everybody loves it and is cheering.”
The Italian announcer fanned the crowd’s anticipation, describing the team’s signature move as one so daring that “nobody else really does it,” Laurie Shaffer recalled. “He says, ‘They’re going to be doing their … piercing the heart to show our love and appreciation for you, the crowd.’”
In the “pierced heart,” the team splits at the top of a high loop. Five planes descend in one direction while four planes descend in the opposite direction, creating a heart shape while trailing brightly colored smoke. As the two groups pass each other to complete the bottom of the heart, the 10th plane cuts through and above the formation at a 90-degree angle, piercing the heart like an arrow while flying toward the audience.
As the Italians did the maneuver, Laurie Shaffer said, she sensed something was wrong. “They started making the heart, and then they were about midway down and there was something in me that said this isn’t going to work, this isn’t lining up.”
Kirt Shaffer watched the maneuver through his camera, poised to capture the climax.
“I can remember in my little viewfinder, I see the impact,” he said. By the time he puts his camera down, “there’s a big wall of flames coming at us.” The plane that careened into the crowd “went just to our left.”
Kirt’s reaction was to turn around and hug the ground.
Laurie stood up.
“I think your instinct is to run because after that, then it was just pure chaos, everybody’s running,” Laurie Shaffer said. “You just hear people screaming, saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’”
A stranger pushed Laurie to the ground and held her head down, “just as the flame was going over the top of us,” she said. The oxygen around her was snuffed out by the moving flames burning through jet fuel.
Her hair, face and part of her back were burned; but the worst burns were to her hands and arms, up to where her sleeves were rolled up.
She was airlifted to a German hospital in Stuttgart because the local hospitals were full with more seriously wounded patients.
In all, Shaffer’s recovery took about four months, including care to her burn wounds, surgery and rehabilitation at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest U.S. military hospital overseas.
She has no lingering physical limitations, but to this day, she can’t go to air shows and the smell of jet fuel and burning hair triggers memories of the day.
The Shaffers said they’re grateful for the medical care Laurie received and wished they could go back in time and thank the military doctors and nurses who tended to her. Kirt Shaffer said the EOD community, their spouses and the Air Force stepped in to help, with everything from financial help to meals to getting bumped to the top of the list for base housing.
“While we were involved in a tragedy, we were the recipients of some wonderful camaraderie that is part of that military community,” Kirt Shaffer said.
Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this story.
Kirt and Laurie Shaffer sit on a bench outside Ramstein Air Base, Germany, dedicated to the victims of the 1988 Ramstein air show disaster, Monday Aug. 27, 2018. The Shaffers returned to Ramstein for the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, which they witnessed as a young married couple. Laurie sustained burns over 23 percent of her body.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES