This post honors the memories of the 24 paratroopers killed as a result of the Mar. 23, 1994 Green Ramp disaster at the former Pope Air Force Base.
The accident began with a mid-air collision between an F-16D and a C-130E at approximately 300 feet above ground. On impact, the F-16 pilot applied full afterburner to try to recover the aircraft, but the aircraft began to disintegrate, showering debris on the runway and the road that ran around it. Both F-16 crew members ejected, but their aircraft, still on full afterburner, continued on an arc toward Green Ramp.
The wreckage of the F-16 punctured the fuel tanks of a C-141’s right wing, causing a large fireball, which combined with the F-16 wreckage and continued on a path taking it directly into the area where a mass of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers were sitting and standing.
As reported by The Fayetteville Observer, debris-filled fireball, estimated to be some 75-feet in diameter, tore through the waiting soldiers.
Most of the soldiers didn’t see the crash. But they heard it.
Capt. Gerald K. Bebber, chaplain of the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, recalled the high-pitched screech of the jet at open throttle give way to a deep reverberating thud before the 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.”
The paratroopers at Green Ramp scattered as the fireball approached.
Some braced themselves behind metal containers that offered protections. Others headed in the opposite direction. Some found safety. Most did not. Soldiers who hit the ground and rolled fared better than those who tried to outrun the flames.
Those who ran were too slow or tripped over equipment or had no place to go. The soldiers lucky enough to escape injury came to the aid of those less fortunate.
Capt. Jonathan C. Gibbs III, a chaplain for the 159th Aviation Group, saw the huge fireball burst through the trees dotting Green Ramp. He and others ran toward a berm and dove behind it for safety.
A few seconds later, that “heard a loud ‘whoosh’ from the other side of the berm.” Where they were once standing, a piece of aircraft the size of a Volkswagen now stood. Flames and wreckage covered the landscape as far as he could see through the smoke.
Capt. Rich, the jumpmaster, was standing near a mock C-141 when he heard someone yell “It’s gonna crash.” He turned, but could only see an orange glow, surrounded by “smudgy black smoke.”
“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-141 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.”
Rich thought he was going to die. The debris struck the mock door like “rain hitting a tin roof” or “heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign.”
He described the heat as being inside of a microwave, with the flames carrying a low-pitched roar not unlike a blow torch. He expected to burst into flames. Unbeknownst to him at the time, though, Rich’s backside was on fire.
Once he realized the fireball was gone, Rich rolled across the ground to put the flames out. Nearby, another man was “burning like a human torch.”
“No matter how hard you patted you couldn’t get the fire out,” he said. A few feet away, another soldier was burning.
“The number of wounded was almost overwhelming. Everywhere there were groups gathered around the injured trying to help them. Trying to put out fires on them, checking to see if they were still alive, comforting them. Others were running around in half panic, half dazed, looking for someone to help or something to do. Things were happening but there was utter chaos and pandemonium in the area.”
Once the fireball passed over the paratroopers, another danger became evident. Ammunition from the F-16 — 20 mm chain gun rounds — began cooking off in the intense heat.
Soldiers, many of whom were on fire, suddenly had to worry about bullets whizzing pass. Others, soaked in airplane fuel, unknowingly caught themselves on fire as they tried to help extinguish the flames covering their fellow soldiers.
Sgt. Gregory Cowper, also of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, began to roll on the ground as the fireball passed over him. He survived the blast with a broken leg.
“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.”
Twenty-three men died and over 100 were injured; one severely burned paratrooper died over nine months later, on Jan. 3, 1995.
Numerous U.S. Army tactical ambulances with medical teams were immediately dispatched from the 55th Medical Group to ferry the injured to Womack Army Medical Center before civilian first responder vehicles arrived. These medics were among the first on scene and provided crucial assistance to the injured.
Photo credit: U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
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