Town of Gander remembers Arrow Air tragedy
Atop a hill just 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 still, silent, yet they speak volumes about the tragedy that occurred there. These statues memorialize the 256 lives that were lost there on a cold December morning 25 years ago.
© Andrea Gunn/The Beacon
SUCH A TRAGEDY — Bill Kelly stands and remembers at the Silent Witness Memorial in Gander. The memorial was erected to honour the lives of the 256 passengers of Arrow Air flight 1285 that crashed there in 25 years ago.
The plane that would eventually cause their deaths, a DC-8 operated by Arrow Air, was carrying 248 United States soldiers from a peacekeeping mission in Egypt to their home base in Fort Campbell Ken., just in time for Christmas. Unfortunately, they, as well as eight crew members, would never make it out of Gander.
The crash left a scar on the heart of Gander that will never fully be repaired; it affected everyone in the community from the firefighters who were on the scene of the disaster to the residents of Gander who may have had no connection or involvement with the crash. Even to this day, many citizens remember vividly that December morning in 1985.
“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 7 o'clock in the morning,” remembered Hedley Gill, who claims to be one of the only people in Gander to actually witness the crash. “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 taxing 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 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.””
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Even those far away from the scene of the crash have strong memories of that day.
“The first note I had of the crash was in the morning, I had just awaken and the radio was reporting a plane crash at the Gander airport,” said Bill Kelly, who was a Grade Six teacher at Gander Middle School at the time of the crash. “And as I was getting ready for school, getting more details, and 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.”
“And at that hour of the morning, everything clear and still, the sound of that airplane is still frozen in my mind.” Bill Kelly
Mr. Gill said it was only a few hours after the crash the town learned of the severity and number of casualties, as information trickled out from emergency responders and others on the scene.
As one of the only witnesses, Mr. Gill said Dec. 12, 1985 was a stressful day for him.
“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. I guess they wanted to know exactly what happened. 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.”