The role of the journalist is to get the story.
They never really know what sort of story they’ll be after from one day to the next, and covering a worldwide phenomenon is something that rarely happens — especially when working in a small town like Gander.
However, on Dec. 12, 1985, local journalists woke up to deal with a story that made headlines all over the world — the catastrophic Arrow Air DC-8 plane crash.
Former Gander Beacon reporter Greg Seaward, and former CBC reporter Larry Hudson, were two of the first journalists who witnessed the scene of the crash that killed all 256 passengers onboard, including 248 U.S. peacekeepers returning home for Christmas from duty in Egypt.
Mr. Seaward was in bed moments after the plane crashed down near the Gander Rod and Gun Club.
He got a call from a friend, whose sister was a nurse. She was asked to help prepare the hospital for triage, and wanted her brother to get her kids ready for school that day. In turn, her brother called Mr. Seaward to inform him of the news.
“He called and got me out of bed at about 7 o’clock in the morning,” recalled Mr. Seaward. “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.”
Mr. Hudson, now retired and in his 80s, and residing in St. Alban’s, had just finished breakfast, and was out the door heading to the CBC office. It was a cold December morning, and Mr. Hudson was met at the door of the CBC building with the chilling news.
“There was a girl that worked as the researcher. She came to the door and told me there had been a crash about two minutes earlier,” said Mr. Hudson. “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 (researcher) 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 was transformed into a media centre. They were briefed after a short period of time, and were notified — off the record — that there had been no survivors. That bit of information had to be kept under wraps, as it wasn’t supposed to be released until made official.
After a short while, Mr. Seaward and his still camera, and Mr. Hudson with his video camera, as well as other local media members, climbed aboard the airport manager’s car to head to the crash site.
At this point they knew it was a large plane that went down, and not a small one. However, no briefing or words of warning would ever prepare them for what they were about to encounter.
“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 Mr. 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.”
Mr. Hudson, who at the time was an established CBC reporter with between 30 and 40 years of journalism experience under his belt, not to mention having gone through the Second World War, 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 say 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. The only time I experienced any real feelings was when I saw these young men close up,” said Mr. Hudson. “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. I didn’t get any of 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 Mr. Hudson videotaped the scene with his Bata camera, Mr. Seaward stood on the road, rotated, and basically took pictures in every direction. He got everything imaginable. A fully-clothed body of a soldier that looked like he could have been napping to anybody not familiar with what was happening; to unrecognizable, burnt bodies; to body parts, and even a dully-lit flashlight.
As tough as it was, the newspaper reporter said he did his best to not think about what was actually happening.
“Subconsciously, I think I shut down my emotions. 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,” he said. “The idea that there were no survivors is such a numbing thing. How do you react to that?”
“It was just so far beyond the human experience you have nothing to relate it too.” Greg Seaward
When talking about the scene, Mr. Seaward paints a picture as clear as any photo. While sitting at his desk, Mr. Seaward, who’s now the communication development officer with the Town of Gander, looked to the floor, face full of concentration, and then began to speak about the disaster that comes back to him 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,” he said. “You look over here, and there’s a body that’s fully clothed and perfectly in tact. It looked like he was sitting there having a nap. On top of him are trees and branches completely burnt and blackened. 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.”
Adding to that grisly scene was what was happening around the bodies, around the rescue workers, and around the burning plane. With no wind, and a mist floating up from the ground, Mr. Seaward said the human mind couldn’t comprehend the entire scope of what was happening around the few journalists that were there.
“There was a lot of mist rising from the ground from the heat that had been dowsed with water and fire fighting 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,” he said. “A firefighter would speak 50 yards away and you could hear him perfectly, and that’s all you heard. 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. Although they just witnessed what was then the worst aviation accident in Canadian history, they still had a job to do.
Mr. Seaward headed to his house, where he had his own personal darkroom, to produce his photos. As quickly as he could produce the images on white paper, the photos were sold to Canadian Press. Eventually, the photos Mr. Seaward took appeared in newspapers across the world.
As for Mr. Hudson, he submitted his footage to CBC, the same footage of the scene that caused him to wake from nightmares in the middle of the night years after the actual incident.
He was amazed at how fast the world’s biggest media markets sent journalists to Gander to cover the event. What went from local journalists taking pictures and shooting video at the scene quickly escalated.
“It quickly became a media circus, you know. I think every major news organization in the world was there. I don’t know how many journalists were there, but they had to be in the thousands, and that’s no exaggeration,” said Mr. Hudson, who recalls seeing 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.”
Though members of competing markets, Mr. Seaward and Mr. Hudson will be forever linked to the story that still affects Gander 25 years later.