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Disaster on Green Ramp: The Army's Response [Secure eReader]
eBook by Mary Ellen Condon-Rall

eBook Category: History
eBook Description: A powerful and compelling story of pain, terror, pride, courage, and compassion, this work celebrates the magnificent spirit of the men and women who make up America's military community. Based largely upon the first-person accounts of those involved in the 23 March 1994 incident, this official study by the U.S. Army's Center of Military History describes the tragic events beginning with the collision of a C-130 Hercules transport and an F-16 fighter attempting to land simultaneously at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. The fighter then struck a parked C-141 Starlifter, producing a massive fireball that brought death or injury to more than a hundred paratroopers assembled in an area adjacent to the airstrip known as Green Ramp, preparing to board a transport that would carry them aloft for a training parachute jump--the worst peacetime loss of life suffered by the 82d Airborne Division since World War II. A quick-reaction mission by nearby Fort Bragg's elite XVIII Airborne Corps assisted in responding to the crisis The reader will recognize the troopers, doctors, medics, chaplains, volunteers, and family members who triumphed over tragedy; some by name, but most by type--essentially ordinary people cast in extraordinary roles by fate. What they shared was a fierce loyalty to one another.

eBook Publisher: InfoStrategist.com, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2003

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The Heroes of Green Ramp

"Those are my brothers ... . They're in trouble and we need to help them."
–Capt. Daniel A. Godfrey

The twenty-third of March 1994 was a fitting day for an airborne jump. The skies were clear, with good visibility; the temperature was in the mid-sixties; and the winds were moderate, 4 to 6 knots. The XVIII Airborne Corps, stationed at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, North Carolina, had scheduled two parachute missions, one in the late afternoon and another in the evening, using aircraft on the adjacent Pope Air Force Base (see Map). Required to undergo prejump exercises within twenty-four hours of taking off, Army paratroopers had assembled at Pope Air Force Base for training in the early afternoon. Units on the day's manifest were the 82nd Airborne Division's 504th Infantry, 505th Infantry, and 782nd Support Battalion (Main), as well as the XVIII Airborne Corps' 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and 159th Aviation Group (Combat)(Airborne).

The paratroopers had gathered on the staging area known as Green Ramp, [1] located west of the southern end of Pope's main runway. Green Ramp contained the jumpmaster school buildings; the jumpers assembly building, referred to as the "pax shed;" a series of CONEX containers; two Air Force buildings; trailers; a snack bar; and the jumpmaster school training

Fort Bragg and Vicinity

area, where mock doors and C-130 and C-141 mock aircraft were located in a parallel line. The paratroopers used the mock-ups, each positioned on a 3-foot-high platform, for rehearsing aircraft exits, as well as the smaller platforms interspersed among the mock-ups for practicing parachute landing falls. A pair of C-141 Starlifters, aircraft not usually based at Pope but designated for Fort Bragg's airborne exercises, sat on the tarmac about 75 feet from the mock doors. Vehicles lined the driveway near the pax shed and adjacent to the jumpmaster school.

Soldiers on Fire

The soldiers on Green Ramp were engaged in a variety of activities in preparation for the jump. About 1400 Capt. James B. Rich, the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade's S 4 (logistics officer) and a primary jumpmaster, had just finished rehearsing duties with the jumpmaster team in the mock aircraft. Cards in hand, he began to practice a briefing he was to give to the paratroopers at 1430. Another brigade officer, Capt. Daniel A. Godfrey, hastily spoke with Rich and then headed back toward the other members of his group located under the trees near the number 2 C-141 mock-up.[2]

A short distance away the 504th and 505th Infantry paratroopers readied themselves to practice jumps from the first set of mock doors. Many sat on the ground with their backs to the airfield, as they listened to the jumpmaster's review on static line injuries – "how to correctly exit and prevent getting the static line from the parachute wrapped about your arm," recalled Capt. M. Lee Walters of the 504th's 1st Battalion. Most had taken off their helmets and were wearing battle dress uniforms (BDU) and boots. The airborne troops wore no protective gear.[3]

From a small platform in front of the trailers, S. Sgt. Michael T. Kelley of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry, rehearsed parachute landing falls by repeatedly hopping off the platform. He waited to move to the pax shed to pick up his parachute.[4]

In the meantime, some paratroopers walked back from the pax shed, having put their chutes on. Others formed assembly lines in the area between the cargo shed and the nearby concrete platform, where the MACO (marshaling area control officer) brief is usually conducted before the final manifest call. After their names were called, the soldiers moved out to the chalk lines at the far end of the marshaling area.[5]

Close to 500 paratroopers were on Green Ramp that early afternoon. Many of them were crowded into a narrow corridor formed by the pax shed and the CONEX containers on one side and the snack bar and mock-ups on the other side. More soldiers attended airborne classes, held at the jumpmaster school.

Around 1410 an F-16D Fighting Falcon collided with a C-130 Hercules transport while both tried to land at Pope Air Force Base. The Hercules touched down safely. The F-16 pilots ejected as the fighter plummeted to the ground, ricocheting across the tarmac and sliding into one of the parked C-141 Starlifters. Both planes exploded in flames, hurling searing-hot metal through the air and spewing 55,000 gallons of fuel onto Green Ramp. The debris-filled fireball, "described by some as 75 feet in diameter," roared through the staging area where the paratroopers were preparing for airborne operations, stopping in the vicinity of the Airborne Gate on Rifle Range Road, which separated Fort Bragg from Pope Air Force Base (Diagram 1). The "rolling blaze" became "a swirling ball of death."[6]

Diagram 1 – Green Ramp Staging Area

Capt. Gerald K. Bebber, the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain, remembered that he had left the C-141 mock-up and was about 20 feet from the pax shed when he:

heard the high pitched screech of a jet fighter airplane at open throttle from beyond the pack shed [sic] suddenly give way to a deep reverberating thud and massive explosion. I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed ... . The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling "run" from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps thirty feet beside the edge of the blast, and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where ... I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. It was the left one of a pair of C-141s parked there.[7]

Capt. Jonathan C. Gibbs III, the 159th Aviation Group chaplain, had been standing on the chalk line after manifest call when he saw the huge fireball "burst through the trees." He and many others ran toward the fence at the end of the marshaling area and dove behind the earth berm paralleling the fence. A few seconds after he "heard a loud 'whoosh' from the other side of the berm," he ran around the berm and saw a piece of fiery aircraft "the size of a Volkswagen" on the chalk line where he had been standing. He saw flames and wreckage farther down along the mock-ups, but his view was blurred because of the smoke.[8]

Captain Rich, the jumpmaster, was standing about 5 feet from the first C-141 mock door, rehearsing his prejump briefing, when some one yelled, "It's gonna crash." He looked in the direction of the flight line and saw an orange glow, surrounded by "smudgy black smoke." Rich remembered:

Despite hearing the word run, for some reason I determined that my only chance of survival lay not in running but finding something solid between myself and the oncoming fireball ... . I think one of the compelling factors in my decision to dive behind the mock door was an over whelming understanding that there was no way in hell I could outrun the oncoming debris ... . I also remember ... that whatever cover I found had to be within about 5 feet of where I was standing. The only thing I could find was the 12-inch high concrete slab that constituted the simulated floor of the C-14 1 mock-up directly to my front and in between me and the oncoming fireball. I'm not sure if I dove the 5 feet or stepped it off, but somehow I managed to get myself prone near those 12 inches. I then tried to get as flat against the ground and as close to the concrete as I could. In fact, I would go so far as to admit that I had an overwhelming desire to burrow my way into the side of that slab.

During the ordeal Rich felt "fully exposed," believing he was going to die. He heard chunks of debris hitting the mock door and thought it sounded like "rain hitting a tin roof." He likened the sound to "heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign." The sensation of the "intense heat of the fireball as it passed over ... was like being in a microwave with the temperature getting hotter and hotter ... . It also had that weird low-pitched roaring sound like that of a blow torch ... . At any instant [Rich] expected to burst into flames." Actually the captain's backside was on fire.[9]

Captain Godfrey, who had been talking to Rich just before the explosion, was heading back toward his group under the trees when he heard "whoosh;" as he turned and looked, he saw "fire in the air and debris starting to fly." He took three strides and "got real small in behind" a tree. He was on all fours with his head ducked down, his arms under him and braced. He heard debris hitting the tree and explosions of 20-mm. chain gun rounds from the F-16.[10]

Sergeant Kelley was standing with his back toward the mock doors and the flight line when he heard a noise; as he turned, he saw the C-141 explode. He ran on an angle to the left of the explosion and something hit him in the back of the head. Realizing he could not outrun the fireball, he rolled on the ground. He remembered being taught "in nuclear training that you lay down and let the blast roll over top of you." He must have caught some fuel vapor, however, for when he stood up he was on fire. The flames rolled around from the back of him to the front. He dropped and rolled again. Then somebody came to help him. The rescuer crawled on top of Kelley and started hitting him with "a wrap of some kind," and another person started pouring water over him, and they called for a third person. "These people saved my life," recalled Kelley. The rescuers put him in the back of a truck and kept talking to him to keep him conscious. Kelley suffered burns on 70 percent of his body, including the area from his chin to his nose. He worried about his burned lips. He fell unconscious as he approached Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. The last thing he saw was the flagpole on the Womack lawn.[11]

Sgt. Jacob "Jake" T. Naeyaert, Jr., of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry, was walking back from the pax shed when the explosion occurred. He was at the level of the second mock door when he started running. He and a friend were trying to get behind the third mock door but did not make it. Something hit Naeyaert on the back of the head and threw him against the mock door; he fell unconscious. After the fireball had passed, he woke up but could not move. His ankle was broken, and his legs were on fire. Other soldiers, who had taken the Army's two-week combat lifesaving course, were there to jump and had their medical bags with them. They ran to Naeyaert, put the fires out on his legs, and gave him intravenous fluids to prevent shock. He went unconscious again. He woke up as soldiers were loading him onto a 2.5-ton truck for evacuation to the hospital. His friend was badly burned but still alive.[12]

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry, who were listening to the jumpmaster's review while sitting on the ground in front of the mock doors, stood up and scattered in several directions after the explosion. Some of them ran toward the jumpmaster school training area, where the CONEX containers offered protection; others bolted toward the snack bar and fence; and still others tried to race behind the mock doors. Some found safety. Most did not. Green Ramp was a confined area, with limited space for running. The soldiers who hit the ground and rolled fared better than the troopers who ran. Some were too slow, or tripped over equipment, or had no place to go. Those who escaped injury went to the aid of the less fortunate, who were usually on fire. Smoking tree branches and tree trunks and pieces of aircraft covered the 2/504th's mock-up, which had received the full blast of the fireball and debris.[13]

Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry, started rolling when the fire caught up with him. "Ammunition was going off. I couldn't tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire." Cowper helped about five or six people before realizing that he had a broken leg. Someone helped him out the gate and into a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV), referred to as a "Humvee" or "Hummer," for transportation to Womack. Cowper considered himself lucky.[14]

Copyright © 2004

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