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.
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.””
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.”
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.”
“And at that hour of the morning, everything clear and still, the sound of that airplane is still frozen in my mind.” Bill Kelly
When something so tragic on such a large scale happens in a community, it's not just forgotten about when the day is over. Mr. Kelly said for days after, the crash was all anyone talked about.
“There was almost a shroud over the town for a number of days after the crash,” 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 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.”
Mr. Kelly said his students were also affected by the tragedy.
“Most of the children were absolutely concerned from a human point of view, 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.”
Mr. 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 when the tragedy occurred.
“He was four days out on the site picking up bodies, pieces of bodies. He lost his appetite, didn't eat for four days,” said Mr. Gill. “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. I was on my way to school in the morning, and it was a crisp, clear, cold morning and it was perfectly still. One of those really still days you get that time of the year, 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,” said Mr. Kelly. “And at that hour of the morning, everything clear and still, the sound of that airplane is still frozen in my mind.”
Mr. Kelly said even weeks after the crash it was still the topic of conversation for many due to the mystery surrounding the cause of the crash; the officials responsible for doing the crash report split in their assertions on what actually brought the plane down. Just over half stated it was icing on the wings of the plane, and the others said an on-board fire brought on 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. 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,” said Mr. Kelly. “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.”
Mr. Kelly said groups started popping up in the United Sates, like one called Families for the Truth about Gander, who got a lot of publicity. They said they were not satisfied with the explanations given for the crash and wanted more answers, which added to talk in the town in the months and years following the crash. He also said there was a lot of political scandal going on in the United States at the time that added fuel to the fire for people suspecting something else was afoot.
“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,” said Mr. Kelly. “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.”
Regardless of the reason of the crash, Mr. Kelly said he is 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, there's something there that makes it keep popping up.”
Mr. Gill, who has lived in Gander since 1945, said of the several other crashes that occurred here, this one was by far the worst and the one that has stuck around 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. Whether it's in the mind of a father or brother or sister or grandparent, these people will always be important,” said Mr. Kelly. “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. 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.”