Atop a hill east of Gander, a solider stands guard, holding the hands of two young children, a boy and a girl.
All three look out over Gander Lake. They are silent, yet speak volumes about the tragedy that occurred there.
The statues memorialize the 256 lives that were lost on a cold December morning 25 years ago on a DC-8 operated by Arrow Air.
The plane was carrying eight crew and 248 United States soldiers from a peacekeeping mission in Egypt to their home base in Fort Campbell, Ky., just in time for Christmas.
The crash left a scar on the heart of Gander that will never fully be healed; it affected everyone from the firefighters who were on the scene to residents who had no direct connection to the crash but were moved by the tragedy.
Many people still remember vividly that December morning in 1985, including Headly Gill, who says he actually witnessed the crash.
“I was the manager of a rental car company at the time, and we had an early morning Provincial Airlines flight that used to arrive in Gander at seven o’clock in the morning,” he recalls.
“So that’s where I was going, to meet the passengers. I was on my way to the airport and I had just parked my car in our parking lot in front of the terminal. I saw the aircraft taxiing out from the terminal, and then I saw an explosion at the end of the runway. She had just lifted off the runway and — bang! You could have seen it anywhere in town. It wasn’t quite light out and it was this big ball of fire.
“When I saw it, I ran into the airport. The only person there was a commissionaire, and I said, ‘Did an aircraft just leave here?’ and he said, ‘Yes, b’y. Military.’
And I said, ‘Well b’y, I think she’s blowed up at the end of the runway.’”
Even people far away from the scene have strong memories of that day.
Bill Kelly was then a Grade 6 teacher at Gander Middle School.
“I had just awakened and the radio was reporting a plane crash at the Gander airport,” he recalls.
“And as I was getting ready for school, getting more details … what really struck me is I could remember thinking to myself, oh no, not another one; 1985 was a really horrific year for plane crashes. I think it’s been confirmed it was a record year for the number of crashes and the number of casualties. I remember it started on the first of January when Eastern Airlines lost a 747, and it continued like that all year. It felt like there was a plane crash every second day.”
As information trickled out from emergency responders and others on the scene, the town learned of the severity of the crash and the number of casualties.
It was a stressful day, Gill said.
“I had to go about my job, but I didn’t get much done in the office that day. The phone was going — newspapers from the states, TV networks, military personnel. The girl that worked with me didn’t stop all day: ‘Another call for you waiting. Two calls. Three calls,”’ he said.
“At the end of the day, a CBC crew came to interview me. They were in the hallway at work, waiting for me, so I did the interview and finally at 6 p.m. I got to go home, after 12 hours. At around 8 p.m., two RCMP officers from St. John’s in civilian clothes came to my house to talk to me. … They asked me if I saw the plane explode. They asked me if I thought there was a bomb aboard, and I said I didn’t know.”
Kelly says for days, the crash was all anyone talked about.
“There was almost a shroud over the town …,” he said.
“As we learned the details, it took hold even more. We learned things about the victims, and that they were mostly young American servicemen coming back from a peacekeeping mission.
“We’ve always been connected with aviation and Americans, and you had these people that had gone through the airport and had been buying things, talking to people. So there’s a connection there. It became more real to us than all the other crashes that occurred that year. It was close to home, and I think the time of the year, around Christmas, added to the feeling of sadness as well.”
Kelly’s students were also affected.
“Many of them had family members involved with the military or aviation that they could associate with it. They were generally concerned about the people and their families. It wasn’t just a story to them — these were real people.”
Gill said the crash had an effect on his whole family. His son was part of the airport’s crash crew, and it was only his second day on the job.
“He was four days out on the site picking up bodies, pieces of bodies. He lost his appetite; didn’t eat for four days,” Gill said.
“The whole town was sad — all these young people going home for Christmas, and they never made it out of Gander.”
“The strongest memory I have of the whole thing happened a few days after the crash,” Kelly recalled.
“I was on my way to school … and it was a crisp, clear, cold morning. … One of those really still days … and the stillness was shattered by an airplane noise.
“I looked up and there was American Starlifter, which was a military transport plane, and I knew instantly what it was doing — it was here taking the remains of the soldiers back to their home.
“And at that hour of the morning, everything clear and still; the sound of that airplane is still frozen in my mind.”
Kelly said speculation about the cause of the crash had people theorizing for weeks. Officials responsible for the crash report were divided; some thought it was ice on the wings of the plane, while others said an on-board fire sparked an explosion that brought the plane down.
“One of the things that amazed me was how little of the airplane appeared to be left after the crash,” Kelly said.
“I’ve seen pictures of lots of crashes and there was large amounts of airplane left, but this one, there was very little which indicated the ferociousness of the crash. Normally, they can put the plane back together piece by piece until they find the cause, especially in the case of an explosion — like the one that exploded over New York in 1976. That couldn’t happen with this one, so there was a whole lot of mystery surrounding the crash for years later.”
Kelly said groups started popping up in the United Sates, like Families for the Truth about Gander, who got a lot of publicity. They weren’t satisfied with the explanations given for the crash and wanted more answers. Political scandal in the United States at the time added fuel to the fire.
“It wasn’t long after the crash when a group in the Middle East, the Hezbollah, got in the media claiming they were responsible for the crash, but I don’t think anyone took them seriously,” Kelly said.
“So there was lots of talk and lots of theories going around, ranging from terrorism to sloppy maintenance of the aircraft, and it just all added to the mystery.”
Kelly said he’s glad the town has erected a memorial to the victims, and believes it’s important to remember and respect those who lost their lives.
“In general, after awhile this kind of thing usually fades, except in the minds of those who were directly related to the individuals that died, but this one has never faded away, not in the way that other crashes have …”
Gill, who’s lived in Gander since 1945, said this was by far the worst crash that ever happened in the area and it resonates in the hearts and minds of residents.
“I think it’s important we remember, because even though it’s been 25 years, this is always current,” he said.
“From a human perspective, it needs to be remembered just as you would remember someone in your family who passed before you, and also as an event that occurred in town,” Kelly said. “Some events deserve to be remembered and, in this case, remembered with a certain amount of respect and dignity that comes with such a tragedy.”