The role of journalists is to get the story, and they never know what sort of story they’ll be chasing from one day to the next.
Still, working in a small town like Gander, you don’t necessarily get up in the morning expecting to cover an event that sends shockwaves around the world.
But that’s just what happened on Dec. 12, 1985, when people woke up to the catastrophic plane crash of the Arrow Air DC-8.
Former Gander Beacon reporter Greg Seaward and former CBC reporter Larry Hudson were two of the first journalists to cover the crash that killed all 256 passengers onboard, including 248 U.S. peacekeepers returning home for Christmas from duty in Egypt.
Seaward was in bed when the plane went down near the Gander Rod and Gun Club.
He got a call from a friend whose sister was a nurse and had been called in to help prepare the hospital for triage.
“He called and got me out of bed at about 7 o’clock in the morning,” Seaward remembers.
“My first reaction was, ‘I hope this is a small plane and everything is blown out of proportion, and hopefully nobody is hurt.’
“That’s not quite what we found.”
Hudson, now in his 80s and retired in St. Alban’s, had just finished breakfast and was heading out the door for the CBC. It was a cold December morning and he was met at the door of his workplace with the chilling news.
“There was a girl, (Carol, who) worked as the researcher,” he recalls.
“She came to the door and told me there had been a crash about two minutes earlier. We tried to open the (CBC) car door, but couldn’t because it was sealed with freezing rain. Rather than fool around with that, we loaded our camera gear into Carol’s car and headed down to the site. We didn’t succeed, of course, because by that time the military and RCMP had the site sealed off.”
Members of the local media headed to the airport’s boardroom, which had been turned into a media centre. They were briefed after a short period of time and notified — off the record — that there were no survivors. That information had to be kept under wraps, as it was still unofficial.
Soon after, Seaward with his still camera and Hudson with his video camera, along with other local media, climbed aboard the airport manager’s car to head to the crash site.
They knew it was a big plane, but no media briefing could have prepared them for what they were about to see.
“We parked on the road and were told to stay on the road, and not to step off this piece of road, because there’s evidence, and as far as they were concerned, there could have been survivors — not to mention big things blowing up,” said Seaward.
“There were a lot of fire hotspots and a lot of explosions from what was ultimately blamed on hydraulic cylinders blowing up in the rubble. It was clearly not a safe place to be. There were bullets going off and there were explosions. It was a war zone. There’s no other way to describe it, and anybody who was there would tell you the same thing.”
Hudson was a seasoned CBC reporter who had been through the Second World War, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing through his viewfinder.
The bodies he saw were those of mere boys.
“It was carnage. The first thing we saw was the famous nose wheel that was on fire. We shot that, and we went around … and there were bodies all over the place.
“It was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever seen …,” Hudson said.
“The odd thing was they never really looked like they were burned. They were lying on the ground, some of them face up, eyes open. When I saw that, I thought about stopping the camera, or pointing the camera somewhere else. By that time I was pretty media-wise. I had been doing it for 30 or 40 years, so I knew that was what they were looking for.
“I didn’t want the family members to see them like that. … They were just kids. That was the only real feeling that I had. We got what they called ‘fantastic footage,’ but it was footage of carnage.”
While Hudson videotaped the scene with his Beta camera, Seaward stood on the road and took pictures in every direction. One shot shows the fully clothed body of a soldier who looks like he is napping. In others, there are unrecognizable, burnt bodies.
He said he did his best not to think about what was happening.
“Subconsciously, I think I shut down my emotions,” Seaward said.
“I didn’t want to think about the bodies and the death, and the fact we were told, unofficially at that point, that there were no survivors.
“The idea that there were no survivors is such a numbing thing. How do you react to that?”
Sitting at his desk, Seaward — who’s now the communication development officer with the Town of Gander — looks at the floor and then begins to speak about the horror that comes back to him on every anniversary of the crash.
“It really was a war zone. Trees were down and you were stepping over, through and between tree trunks. There was a very bizarre quality to it … very surreal. There was no order … it’s hard to explain.
“You look over here and there’s a body that’s fully clothed and perfectly intact. … You turn the other way and there’s blackened, charred trees and ground, and there’s bodies on top of that.
“You would think there would be some order to it, some structure or sameness around the site, but there was total confusion. Some bodies were burned beyond recognition and it took forensics to prove it was, in fact, a body and not the limb of a tree.
“There was a lot of mist rising from the ground from the heat that had been dowsed with water and firefighting chemicals. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and by the time we got down there … everything was just so still.
“It was just so far beyond the human experience, you have nothing to relate it too. … Everything was so oppressive, like the silence was pressing down on you.”
After spending about 15 minutes at the crash site, the two journalists went their separate ways. They had just witnessed what was then the worst aviation accident in Canadian history, and they had jobs to do.
Seaward headed home to his darkroom to develop his film. The photos were sold to Canadian Press and eventually appeared in newspapers across the world.
Hudson submitted his footage to the CBC — images that caused him to wake from nightmares years after the crash.
He was amazed at how fast the world’s biggest media markets sent journalists to Gander to cover the event.
“It quickly became a media circus, you know. I think every major news organization in the world was there,” he said.
“I don’t know how many journalists were there, but they had to be in the thousands, and that’s no exaggeration.
Hudson recalls seeing representatives from media giants like CBS, A&E, NBC and ABC.
“CBC flew in a Hercules helicopter with all their equipment. All of these media outlets didn’t just send journalists — they sent three or four crews. I saw about four national CBC reporters and each one was trying to cover a different angle to the thing. It was incredible.”
Although they worked for competing markets, Seaward and Hudson are now forever linked to the story that still haunts Gander, 25 years later.