CANADA/COVER

TRAGEDY AT GANDER

BOB LEVIN December 23 1985
CANADA/COVER

TRAGEDY AT GANDER

BOB LEVIN December 23 1985

TRAGEDY AT GANDER

CANADA

COVER

Icy rain fell from the dark, predawn sky, but at Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport, young American soldiers were in high spirits. After a sixmonth tour with the multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert they were making the final refuelling stop before taking off for Ft. Campbell, Ky., and a Christmas homecoming. Cynthia Goodyear, working the overnight shift at the airport’s dutyfree shop, smiled as the servicemen sang along and danced to piped-in Christmas carols. They bought presents for loved ones—perfume, stuffed animals, candies, even two crystal birds perched on a rock. Recalled Goodyear: “I said to one young fellow, ‘You’re going home at last.’ And he said, T hope so.’ ” Many men, making their first visit to the remote airport hacked out of a hardwood forest, bought T-shirts that read, “I survived Gander, Newfoundland.”

Explosion: At 6:54 a.m., just moments after the chartered DC-8 carrying the American soldiers —and 101,000 lb. of fuel—took off from Runway 22, it suddenly faltered, plunged over the Trans-Canada Highway and crashed into the woods. “I looked around and the sky lit up,” said car rental attendant Judy Parsons, who was in a parking lot scraping sleet from her company’s cars. “It lasted all of about two seconds and then there was an explosion. I heard no noise, just saw a big ball of fire.” By the time rescue workers arrived at the burning wreckage minutes later, all 256 passengers—248 soldiers and eight civilian crew members—were dead.

Last week’s crash was the worst air disaster ever on Canadian soil. The

tragedy at Gander, a town of 13,000 people 200 km northwest of the provincial capital of St. John’s, also raised the 1985 world total of deaths from airplane disasters to 1,948, the highest toll in the annals of commercial aviation (page 12). By week’s end the cause of the latest crash was still unknown. Investigators for the Canadian Avia-

tion Safety Board (CASB), joined by the RCMP and U.S. aviation personnel, sifted through the grisly and still-smoldering rubble. They found the cockpit voice and flight data recorders of the 16-year-old jet; both were badly damaged, but officials in Ottawa said that they had retrieved some “useful infor-

mation” from the data recorder.

In Gander, authorities completed the grim task of gathering the identifiable human remains. Said deputy investigator in charge, David Owen, on Thursday: “We can’t confirm the exact number of bodies at this point in time. We have a number of body parts, as you can appreciate.” By Saturday authorities were preparing to move the remains out of a makeshift morgue in Hangar 21 onto two C-141 Starlifter cargo planes for transport to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The White House announced that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, would attend memorial services for the victims at Ft. Campbell.

Drizzle: Although Canadian and U.S. authorities released no specific details of their investigation, Gander residents—and about 100 reporters—began to speculate about why the McDonnell Douglas-built “stretch” DC-8 went down. One theory focused on the fact that the pilot of the plane did not order de-icing of the craft’s wings, despite the freezing drizzle. Ice buildup has played a part in previous air accidents, including the Washington, D.C., crash of an Air Florida Boeing 737 into the Potomac River in 1982. But the pilot of an Eastern Provincial Airways Boeing 737 that took off safely from Gander minutes before the DC-8 crash did not request de-icing either.

The operator of the crashed jet was Miami-based Arrow Air Inc., which has a worldwide contract to transport U.S. servicemen. Last year, in a nationwide inspection, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concluded that Arrow’s maintenance procedures and record-keeping were faulty and fined the airline $34,000

(U.S.). But, said FAA spokesman Roger Meyers, the infractions “weren’t serious enough to yank its certification.” Troubled: But at week’s end an Arrow spokesman confirmed reports that the jet had a troubled history. On Nov. 15 the plane, carrying 99 marine reservists, was involved in an aborted takeoff in Grand Rapids, Mich., during which the tail section hit the runway with a jolt. After men and equipment were moved from the rear of the craft it took off and completed the flight without incident. On July 28 the same plane was carrying members of the

Kentucky Air National Guard and Ohio Air National Guard when it was forced to abort a liftoff from the airport in Toledo, Ohio.

In another incident—unconfirmed by Arrow—Randy Stirm said that when he was working for Serv-Air Inc., a company that does subcontract work for airlines, he helped to service the ill-fated DC-8 at McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash. Stirm said in a TV interview that, in addition to problems with interior lights, tires and breaks, the number 3 engine had a malfunctioning valve that caused “compressor stalls.” Stirm said that two Arrow Air mechanics installed new valves but did not change a faulty filter. As a result, Stirm said, he refused to include his name on the plane’s maintenance log. But Arrow was hardly the only target of the postcrash inquiry. In Beirut, an anony-

mous caller to a foreign news agency claimed responsibility in the name of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. The caller said the group, collaborating with the Egyptian Arab Movement, had planted a bomb timed to go off as the plane landed in the United States, but that it exploded in Canada because of a delay on the flight’s first refuelling stop in Cologne, West Germany. Canadian and U.S. officials said they doubted the claim. Preliminary evidence, they said, suggested that the explosion occurred not in the air but on impact. Said an RCMP spokesman:

“There is nothing to indicate any act of terrorism.”

Sorrow: Whatever the cause, the crash was a devastating blow to one of the most storied outfits in the U.S. Army. The victims were members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division—the division known as the “Screaming Eagles.” During the Second World War the 101st spearheaded the D-Day invasion at Normandy, and at the Battle of the Bulge the commander refused to surrender to the Germans with a defiant one-word answer: “Nuts.” Last week flags flew at half-staff at the division’s home base at Ft. Campbell near Hopkinsville, Ky., set in the rolling hills along the Tennessee border, where families of the returning servicemen had planned a gala Christmas welcome. President Reagan said that “the loss, tragic at any time, is espe-

dally painful at this holiday period.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wrote Reagan to express the “profound sorrow” of all Canadians. But at Ft. Campbell, pain was mostly a private thing. Said Barbara Foskey, whose husband was killed on the flight: “There are no words, there are no words.”

Rumors: Since July the troops had served in the Sinai as part of a 2,500member, 10-nation peacekeeping force that oversees the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. For all the potential danger of the

duty, however, it had been an uneventful watch. The first contingent returned to Ft. Campbell on Nov. 26, the second on Dec. 4. The third—245 men and three women—boarded the plane in Cairo on Dec. 11 and landed at Cologne-Bonn Airport. It took one hour to refuel the plane, airport officials said. After the crash there were rumors that a mechanical problem had added another 90 minutes to the stopover. But German airport officials said the pilot did not mention any technical troubles; the extra time was provided, they said, to allow passengers to refresh themselves.

The next stop was Gander. Built in 1935 when Newfoundland was still an English colony, the airport was then one of the world’s largest and served as a strategic link in the North American defence chain during the Second World War. Later, as jets replaced

prop planes, Gander’s role as a refuelling point diminished. Still, it remains a regular stopover for Cuban, Soviet and Czechoslovakian airliners—and a popular jumping-off point for defectors. The DC-8 carrying the U.S. soldiers landed at Gander at 5:34 local time. While some of the servicemen bought gifts, others called home. When

Sgt. Rudy Parris, 41, reached his wife, Malinda, by phone she asked why he was calling because he would shortly be in Kentucky. Replied Parris: “I just wanted to talk to you.” Then he ran to catch the plane.

Minutes later the DC-8 lay in flames near Gander Lake, 1,000 yards from the end of the runway. In the airport tower, air-traffic controllers quickly dispatched an emergency team. It arrived to find the burning wreckage—and no survivors. “A lot of the smaller fires turned out to be human beings,” said volunteer fireman Keith Head. The flames were still burning when local CBC television reporter Larry Hudson was allowed on the site 2Vè hours later. He could see a swath of torn forest where the plane had completed its plunge. “It didn’t look real,” he said of the scene. “The bodies looked like mannequins. There wasn’t any blood around.” Added Hudson: “The thing that was going through my

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mind was, the poor buggers. And the poor devils waiting for them coming home for Christmas.”

Morticians: CASB officials based in Moncton, N.B., 760 km from Gander, raced to the scene, followed by a sevenmember team of investigators from Ottawa. A second group from CASB via CFB Uplands in Ottawa arrived 3V2

hours later. Joining the Canadians was a 32-member U.S. military team, including morticians and forensic experts. Canadian authorities said that Egyptian and West German authorities would be asked to study the jet’s refuellings and reboardings in Cairo and Cologne. “It’s a detective job,” said investigator Bill Muncy. “The key is to gather more information than you’ll ever need so you won’t find out too late you’ve missed something important.” Jarring: Maclean’s staff correspondent Michael Rose, who toured the crash site, reported that some pieces of the plane were lodged in treetops. Beside a rutted road that ran in line with the runway on the other side of the Trans-Canada lay a large hunk of blue-and-white fuselage, a charred U.S. flag decal still evident above the windows. Nearby were a burned engine and part of the wheel assembly. But there was strikingly little wreckage. The plane had, in effect, disintegrated,

leaving a trail of debris almost a mile long. Still, there were jarring artifacts from a doomed voyage: soft-drink cans, a roll of toilet paper, a green army duffle bag split open to reveal a grey towel and a faded pair of blue jeans.

Ft. Campbell was in a state of shock. On the drizzly morning that the plane was scheduled to arrive, the base had

been decorated with tinsel signs proclaiming “Welcome Home” and “Merry Christmas.” Members of the army band unpacked instruments at the base gymnasium for a celebration. Michelle Givens, 22, whose husband, Gary, was due back on the DC-8, arrived at the gym at about 5:30 a.m. to help with the coffee and cake. She left her two young sons home in bed. When she heard the first reports of the crash, she cried: “Oh no, oh my God, I don’t believe it. What about my kids?” Her sister, 26-year-old Joyce Ramsey, was also waiting at the base for her boyfriend, Mark Carter, who had phoned her from Gander. The couple planned to get married during the Christmas holidays. “He can’t be dead, he can’t be dead,” Ramsey sobbed. “I just talked to him.”

Until authorities began releasing the list of dead, families clung to the slimmest of hopes. In a few cases, that was enough. Pauline Carlin said her

son, Chris, who was scheduled to be on the flight, called from Israel where he had decided to visit his girlfriend. “I’m okay, but I lost a lot of friends,” he said. His mother cried out: “Thank God, thank God you’re safe.” For his part, Eric Harrington misplaced his passport and was refused permission to board the plane in Cairo. Said his

mother, Jonnie: “That was a good time to be clumsy. It was God’s miracle. It was his intent for my son to miss that plane.”

Grief: Most were not so lucky. Senior offices and chaplains made the rounds of houses across the United States to break the news officially; two chapels stayed open all night. Dreaded messages also reached the homes of soldiers in such communities as Burns, Ore., Pine Bluff, Ark., and Bristol, Tenn. At Ft. Campbell, Gen. Burton Patrick declared: “We will lick our wounds, help those families in grief, reconstitute our forces and continue the mission. Each of those soldiers who have lost their lives in Newfoundland wouldn’t want it any other way.” The band went ahead with the concert at a rescheduled time. Only one song was dropped: I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The small audience wept openly.

Back at Gander, the precise cause of the grief remained elusive. Investigator in charge Peter Boag said that there was as yet no definitive answer on whether an explosion or fire occurred on board before impact. Tapes from the control tower, he added, re-

vealed no unusual conversations between the pilot and the controllers.

Records: Investigators also turned their attention to Arrow Air—and the DC-8 jet. The airline was founded by George Batchelor in California in 1947 but shut down after seven years of operation. In 1981, after Washington deregulated U.S. airlines, the airline

opened for business in Miami. Arrow operates regular passenger service to the West Indies, but its large charter business includes a $33-million contract with the U.S. military. The crashed DC-8, built in 1969, was one of 12 planes in Arrow’s fleet. At least three companies operated the plane before Arrow leased it last year. By the time it reached Gander last week the jet had logged about 50,000 flying hours, about average for a DC-8. In any case, said the FAA’s Roger Meyers, “the chronological age of the plane is of absolutely no importance. Planes 20 and 30 years old are quite safe. It’s a question of their maintenance records.”

Still, Arrow’s maintenance record was hardly unblemished. In early 1984 the FAA, under orders from the department of transportation, undertook a nationwide “white glove” survey of airline maintenance procedures. Arrow and 39 other carriers then were subjected to more detailed study. The most serious accusation against Arrow was that repair jobs—many minor, but some more significant—were not completed for several weeks.

Arrow never formally admitted to

the breeches, but the company paid the $34,000 in fines. And according to the FA A safety evaluation, the inspectors said that the carrier’s management and employees had responded with “total sincerity” and a strong desire “to make Arrow the best in the industry.” Following last week’s crash, FA A spokesman Frank Layden said Arrow,

working under the agency’s continued surveillance, has maintained a “credible operation.”

Impact: In the Commons, Liberal Leader John Turner demanded that the Canadian government re-examine deregulation in the United States to determine its impact on safety and maintenance—before Canada launches a similar airline policy next year. Transport Minister Donald Mazankowski bridled at Turner’s link between deregulation and the Gander disaster. But that was a political fight for another time. The time now belonged to the 256 Americans who perished in Newfoundland, and the families who mourn them. Even people who barely knew the victims could not come to terms with their deaths. In the Gander gift shop, vendor Cynthia Goodyear said, “I keep hoping I’m going to wake up and find out it was all a dream.”

BOB LEVIN

CHRIS WOOD

MICHAEL ROSE

PAT ROCHE

HILARY MACKENZIE

IAN AUSTEN

WILLIAM LOWTHER

PETER KIERNAN

PETER LEWIS