Military leaders, survivors and Family members marked the 20th anniversary of the Green Ramp disaster in a memorial ceremony Monday.
Twenty-four, 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers from 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, were killed on March 23, 1994, when an F-16D fighter jet collided with a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft while both were trying to land at Pope Air Force Base.
Following the mid-air collision, the F-16 hit the ground, ricocheted across the tarmac and slid into a parked C-141. Both planes burst into flames, causing an explosion that sent searing-hot metal hurling through the air and the spillage of more than 50,000 gallons of fuel onto Green Ramp.
“Twenty years ago something terrible happened here, just right outside on a morning much like this one, but something else happened here on that day … good things happened here,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, deputy commanding general for operations for the 82nd Abn. Div.
“There were tremendous things that were done here that day: Soldiers saving Soldiers, Soldiers putting out fires on other Soldiers, Soldiers dragging other Soldiers out of fires and resuscitating them (and) putting tourniquets on limbs that had been severed … anything they could do to care for their buddies,” Cavoli continued. “It is that spirit that even in our commemoration of the terrible events of that day that we celebrate.”
Cavoli said it was an honor to celebrate the heroic actions of one such paratrooper, the guest speaker for the ceremony, Lt. Col. Judson Nelson.
At the time of the disaster, Nelson, now the commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion, was a second lieutenant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th PIR, 1st BCT, 82nd Abn. Div.
“He was broken and he was burned but he stood up and fought through his pain and fought through his injuries to save others,” Cavoli said of Nelson.
“He saved many others that day at the risk of his own life which he almost gave in the service of his fellow Soldiers.”
Nelson spoke of the tragic events of that fateful day. He talked about fellow paratroopers who distinguished themselves by reacting in a time of chaos to save lives. He talked about battle buddies who perished, and about the tremendous support paratroopers and members of the Fort Bragg community provided him, his wife and fellow survivors not only at Fort Bragg, but in San Antonio, where many of the injured received extended medical care.
“By maintaining vigil at our side, they shared their strength to help us ride the waves of fear, despair and uncertainty (and) we knew that we were not forgotten,” Nelson said. “They extended a hand that enabled us to pull ourselves back up on our feet, and all the while they were grieving the loss of their fellow paratroopers too.
“All the while this was going on, the Fayetteville community flew their flags at half staff and drove with their headlights on during the day to mourn the losses that had already been suffered,” Nelson continued.
Nelson said the support provided to him and his wife in the aftermath of the disaster drove home the fact that the paratroopers of the 82nd Abn. Div. are a Family, and that in the midst of tragedy, they all come together to honor those who have fallen from the ranks.
To conclude the solemn ceremony, Cavoli, Command Sgt. Maj. LaMarquis Knowles, command sergeant major of the 82nd Abn. Div., Col. Trevor J. Bredenkamp, 1st BCT commander and Col. Michael Fenzel, 3rd BCT commander, laid a wreath and rendered honors.
The sound of volleys from the firing party and the playing of taps following the wreath laying not only signaled the conclusion of the ceremony, but demonstrated the commitment of the All American paratroopers and the Fort Bragg community to continue to remember the lives lost that day ... for the next 20 years and beyond.