‘He came in the kitchen to tell me that Daddy was dead’

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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News of the Arrow Air crash shocked families in Fort Campbell

U.S. Army Lt.-Col. Sidney McMannis (obscured) and Command Sgt. Major Raymond Rodriquez (foreground) place a wreath on the memorial for Task Force 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division soldiers during the Division Gander Memorial Ceremony Dec. 12, 1999, at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Memorial commemorates the 248 soldiers lost in a plane crash at Gander Dec. 12, 1985. — Submitted photo

After Amy Nichols’ husband, Sgt. Richard Nichols, called from Gander to say he’d be home earlier than expected, she woke her children, ages one and three, and headed to the base gym at Fort Campbell, Ky.

When they arrived, Amy — whose surname is now Gallo — remembers being told to go home. Arrow Air Flight 1285 had been delayed.

“They already knew the plane had crashed,” she said this week. “They just didn’t know what to do with us.”

The family went home and she began making cinnamon rolls.

Her three-year-old son, Chip, watched “He-Man” on TV, but the program was interrupted by a news alert.

A plane had crashed, the report said. Then it showed a map like the one his mom had just used to explain where his father was.

“He came in the kitchen to tell me that Daddy was dead. That’s kind of how I found out,” said Amy, who lived in Fort Campbell then.

She and the children quickly returned to the gym.

“It was a mess. It was a mess,” she recalled.

Two hundred and forty-seven other soldiers from Fort Campbell were on that plane with Richard Nichols.

Families were distraught. People didn’t know for sure if their husbands and wives were dead or alive.

Col. Roger Heath remembers the tragedy vividly.

He had awoken early that morning to meet Flight 1285. He had been in Sinai in 1984 and it was tradition to meet the returning unit the following year.

As Heath prepared to go to the Fort Campbell Airfield, he heard on the news that a military plane had crashed in Gander.

“I had a gut feeling that it was our plane,” he said by email earlier this week.

“No details were given that early in the morning, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too bad of a crash. One always hopes for the best.”

Then he met up with some other soldiers.

“All of us had that sinking feeling it was our bird that crashed,” he said.

“Later that morning, we gathered in the gym with hundreds of family members who had yellow ribbons, welcome-home banners, names of their soldiers on cardboard, etc. — typical welcome home stuff.

“(The commander) walked out into the middle of the gym and announced that the plane carrying the … soldiers had crashed in Gander. There was a large gasp. He paused for several seconds and then announced there were no survivors. Many screams, crying, people saying, ‘No, No, No!’”

For Amy, the horror — which happened on her fifth wedding anniversary — would get even worse.

She went back home to call her mother in-law in California.

It was two hours behind there, and she knew her husband’s mom would soon be waking and turning on the news.

“I told her, and she had a heart attack,” Amy said.

“She literally had a heart attack. … It was just a really rough, bad day.”

The Fort Campbell base was stunned.

Then a plan was formulated to collect records and determine the plane’s manifest.

“This was all before email and cellphones,” Heath pointed out. “The primary means of contacting the Sinai in those days was through radio relay. Getting accurate information was difficult, but the military got into full swing once the tragedy of the loss became known.”

Heath said families reacted in  various ways. Some were so stunned they couldn’t make decisions. Other people went into shock and had to be taken home.

“Some simply cried for days on end. Eventually most began to go through the stages of grief at different levels, different times. As the military began working to support the families, every resource was given to support the families. But even 25 years later, some may not have fully accepted their overwhelming loss.”

Heath was later assigned to replace the unit’s chaplain. Maj. Troy Carter was on the downed DC-8. Heath’s title now is installation chaplain.

The memory of one widow — a Korean woman who didn’t understand English — has stuck with him.

He said she realized something was wrong but didn’t know what. A Korean/American chaplain assistant was found to translate.

“She cried and cried, calling her husband’s name in Korean. She had no idea what to do.”

Heath said the local Korean community helped her through the daunting process of paperwork, funeral plans and finding a new place to live.

“I can’t imagine being in a strange country, not speaking the language and losing your spouse. I don’t remember what became of her.”

Amy somehow managed to cope and has become what many people would consider an inspiration. (See Monday’s Telegram for that story.)

Remarried and now a mother of six, she still approaches every Dec. 12 with dread.

“I always wake up at 4:30 in the morning because that’s when my husband called me (from Gander), and I’m up,” she said.

She has missed only one of the annual ceremonies held at the Gander Memorial in Fort Campbell to mark the tragedy. She attends the service at nearby Hopkinsville, Ky., too.

She’ll be at both sites next week to mark the 25th anniversary.

Heath said this year’s event will involve the former brigade commander as well as Doug Carver, the United States Army chief of chaplains.

He was a chaplain at Fort Campbell at the time of the Gander crash.

“They were peacekeepers,” Heath said of the 248 soldiers who lost their lives.

“May they continue to rest in peace.”

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @bartlett_steve

Organizations: Arrow Air, United States Army

Geographic location: Fort Campbell, Gander, Hopkinsville, Ky.

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