“The crash and the days that followed is certainly a time I will never forget,” says Doug Sheppard, “as I know those who were involved and who lived here at the time will never be able to forget.”
Sheppard was the mayor of Gander on Dec. 12, 1985, when 256 people lost their lives aboard a U.S. Defence Department chartered Arrow Air DC-8 jetliner.
At just after 7 a.m., less than a minute after their plane took off from Gander International Airport, the 240 men and eight women of the 101st Airborne Division and eight crew members perished when the plane struck down-sloping terrain and skidded on its belly for approximately 900 feet.
The soldiers were returning home for Christmas from a six-month deployment to Sinai, Egypt.
Sheppard had driven by the area just minutes before. He and his wife were on their way to St. John’s that morning to meet with Municipal Affairs Minister Ron Dawe.
Sheppard stopped at Goobies for a coffee and heard about the crash on the radio. He called Gander to confirm the report and to find out more details before heading on to St. John’s. There, he made a call to Deputy Mayor Sandra Kelly for an update.
The next day, Sheppard and his wife drove back to Gander, where they confronted the horrible reality.
Kelly had told him the town’s role was responsive at first, involving the fire department and town depot workers, but later the task was to provide assistance in any way possible as Transport Canada and U.S. military officials took over the crash scene.
“I must say, our fire department and town workers did a good job in whatever they were asked to do,” Sheppard said.
“In the days that followed, it was a very busy time in town as there were meetings about everything, especially jurisdiction.
“We set up different committees to handle the various aspects of the town’s involvement, as well as putting our focus on organizing a memorial service.”
In conjunction with the Gander Ministerial Association, the service was planned for St. Martin’s Pro-Cathedral on Dec. 15, with Rev. James Reid officiating. Members of other local churches participated, as did a chaplain with the U.S. military.
“It was pulled together quite quickly and approximately 700 people attended, which was a huge crowd for St. Martin’s,” said Sheppard.
Among them were local, provincial, federal and U.S. political and military dignitaries.
“We also had an overflow crowd at St. Joseph’s, where we set up a closed-circuit television broadcast of the service, and there were many television stations that broadcasted from here that day,” he said.
Now, with the 25th anniversary of the crash just days away, the Town of Gander and Canadian Forces Base Gander are set to hold a service at St. Martin’s again, and special invitations have been sent out across Canada and the United States.
“This day is about remembering and keeping the memory of the people who lost their lives on this tragic day alive,” said Gander Mayor Claude Elliott.
The service at St. Martin’s starts at 2 p.m., followed by a service at the Silent Witness Memorial site at 4 p.m.
The memorial was built on the crash site near Gander Lake and features a sculpture of an American soldier standing atop a massive rock holding the hands of two civilian children carrying olive branches — representing the peacekeeping mission of the 101st Airborne Division. Behind them rise three tall staffs bearing the flags of Canada, the United States, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
There’s also the 22-foot-high Cross of Sacrifice crafted from the remains of the plane’s emergency exit door. It bears the inscription Rendezvous With Destiny — the motto of the 101st Airborne Division. The cross is surrounded by 256 native trees, planted as a tribute to the crash victims.
While Elliott said this year’s service is special because it marks a milestone, the town has annually remembered the U.S. soldiers and Arrow Air crew members who lost their lives that day.
There is also a memorial at the 101st Airborne Division’s home base at Fort Campbell, Ky., called the Gander Memorial Site. There’s a statue and memorial park with 256 Canadian maples, as well as the names of all the victims.
“When you have this type of tragedy, you have a bond with those involved,” said Elliott.
Sheppard, who was Gander’s mayor from 1981 until 1993, has experienced that bond first-hand. In the year after the crash, he was invited to the U.S. Pentagon, White House and Fort Campbell, where he participated in the unveiling ceremony at the memorial site.
“There’s no doubt the crash created a bond that still goes on today,” Sheppard said.
He remembers the many family members of the victims who came to Gander in the days that followed, including the first — Walter Kaplin of Tacoma, Wash., whose son was among the soldiers who died.
“He stayed with us, and since that time we have had other family members stay with us, and I still get a letter or card from some,” Sheppard said.
He also has letters, photographs, and newspapers articles about the crash tucked away in a briefcase, but he says he doesn’t need those to remind him of what happened 25 years ago.
He has his vivid memories.
“It’s important we remember these people,” he said.