Remembering the Paratroopers of the Green Ramp Disaster at Fort Bragg, NC

This disaster 24 years ago made one of the toughest, sexiest, and one of the best leader and friend I’ve ever worked for. This man who walks among you was a hero that day. He saved the lives of many troopers especially one paratrooper by throwing them onto the ground and covering them with his own body as a 40 foot wall of flame and debris slammed into unsuspecting paratroopers preparing to load C-130 Hercules aircraft to conduct airborne operations training at Pope Air Force Base “Green Ramp.”

This split second act of sacrifice, saved the life of another paratrooper.

He was a young airborne combat medic then, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This hero, a man that will never tell this story for glory, was burned over 60% of his body. And although he was burned, his own flesh sliding off his back and face, and in extreme pain, this young paratrooper helped others.

“The JP-8 (aircraft fuel) I and others were soaked with kept re-igniting because of our body heat…we just kept having to put dudes out …as soon as I started coughing up black shit, I smiled. I knew I was about to get knocked out and intubated, i knew that the pain would stop after that.”

I’m honored to have served alongside this hero and I am proud to have been mentored by this man who pushed me to be a better soldier and medic. 

Photo: Fayetteville Observer

 

It was a perfect day for a jump.

Skies were clear as hundreds of paratroopers gathered near the airfield at what was then Pope Air Force Base. There were barely any winds to speak of. And the temperature was a pleasant mid-60s.

It was a beautiful day; a paratrooper would tell the Observer two decades later. But it wouldn’t last.

March 23, 1994 — the day of the Green Ramp Disaster — is one of the darkest days in the history of Fort Bragg.

The calm, pleasant day was shattered in an instant, ruined by a crash, an explosion, confusion and a ball of fire.

Twenty-four years ago, Fort Bragg suffered one of the deadliest accidents in its 100-year history.

During a time of peace and in their own backyard, the 82nd Airborne Division suffered the greatest single-day loss of life since World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

Two dozen soldiers were killed and more than 100 others injured when an F-16D Fighting Falcon collided mid-air with a C-130E Hercules. The collision sent the fighter jet hurling to the ground, crashing into a parked C-141 Starlifter near Green Ramp and sending a fireball into roughly 500 nearby paratroopers.

But in that darkness, soldiers and airmen exclled. Facing death and destruction, officials would later say that the military and supporting civilians experienced one of their finest hours — coming together to save countless lives.

 

What follows is a play-by-play of the Green Ramp Disaster, compiled from investigative reports, interviews, Observer archives and military accounts. Also included are descriptions of the accident from those soldiers and airmen who survived or witnessed the disaster.

Two airborne operations were scheduled for March 23, 1994. One was set for that afternoon. And another was to follow in the evening.

Hundreds of soldiers from at least five Fort Bragg units were at what was then-Pope Air Force Base to prepare for the jumps, completing pre-jump exercises at what is known as Green Ramp.

The soldiers included parts of the 82nd Airborne Division — the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments and the 782nd Support Battalion — as well as troops from the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and the 159th Aviation Group.

In 1994, Green Ramp was far from what it is today.

Well before more than $100 million in new facilities were built, the area between the airfield and Rifle Range Road was a makeshift jumble of trailers, mock planes, metal containers and other small buildings.

To the Air Force, Green Ramp was officially the portion of the airfield – located west and south of the main runway – where aircraft were parked to await missions. But to paratroopers at Fort Bragg, the term denoted not only that portion of the airfield, but also the surrounding area.

At 2 p.m. on March 23, 1994, Capt. James B. Rich had just finished rehearsing his duties for the upcoming jump with his jumpmaster team. Rich, a logistics officer with the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, was to be the primary jumpmaster for the operation. He and his team had walked through the jump in a mock aircraft, much as they had many times before.

Rich was now beginning to prepare for a briefing that would never come. At 2:30 p.m., he was to go over the jump with his paratroopers. But there would be no jump that day.

Nearby, paratroopers with the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments waited for their own practice jump from the mock aircraft. Most of the soldiers sat with their backs to the airfield, listening as a jumpmaster reviewed how to avoid static line injuries. The soldiers wore only their battle dress uniforms and boots. Their helmets were at their sides. And they wore no protective gear.

Staff Sgt. Michael T. Kelley, of 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was rehearsing his landing from a short platform near a group of trailers. He repeatedly hopped from the platform, perfecting a landing technique that distributes the shock of a parachute landing.

The balls of Kelly’s feet would hit the ground first. Then the side of his calf. Then his thigh. Then his hip. And finally, the side of his back. Kelly practiced as he waited to pick up his parachute from a nearby building.

Other soldiers already had their parachutes. Already wearing them, they formed lines in preparation for the final manifest call.

Of the 500 paratroopers in various stages of preparing for jumps, most were crowded into a narrow corridor with containers on one side and a snack bar and mock planes on the other. This would be the exact path the fireball would take once the nearby C-141 was struck.

As soldiers readied for their jumps, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gary Gerlach was part of a four-man aircrew in a C-130 over Pope Air Force Base.

Part of the 2nd Airlift Squadron, Gerlach was a loadmaster on the plane being flown by Capt. Jose Raices and 1st Lt. Adam Zaret. Another airman, Sgt. Joel Myers, was the engineer.

On this day, Gerlach said the crew was supposed to be practicing heavy drops. But a door malfunction had forced them to change their plans.

Instead, the pilots practiced touch and go landings. They left Pope Air Force Base at 1 p.m. but didn’t go far. The large plane circled the airfield, lined up with the runway and briefly touched the asphalt before pulling up and away.

The maneuver was “uneventful yet precise,” Gerlach said. Zaret repeated the maneavuer several times without incident.

The collision was captured in transcripts of recorded air-to-ground and air-to-air communications from over Pope Air Force Base. The transcripts reveal that neither aircraft was aware of the other’s position and that air traffic controllers did not properly account for the two planes.

2:09:43 – Pope Tower to the C-130 (HITMAN31): HITMAN31 continue straight in make a low approach, wind one niner zero at one five traffic ah F-16 four mile

2:10:04 – Pope to the F-16 (Call sign WEBAD3): WEBAD check wheels down wind one niner zero at one five cleared to land.

2:10:07 – F-16 to Pope: WEBAD3 three green… low approach

2:10:16 – Pope to C-130: HITMAN31 ah present position right closed approved

2:10:20 – C-130 to Pope: Present position right closed for 31 wilco

2:10:26 – UNKNOWN: (background noise)… Jesus

2:10:30 – UNKNOWN: (background noise)… Oh shit; Holy shit

2:10:32 – UNKNOWN: Tower you got that midair?

2:10:34 – UNKNOWN: Tower we had a midair collision, midair, midair

2:10:36 – UNKNOWN: Eject, eject, get out of there, get out of there

2:10:38 – UNKNOWN: There he goes

2:10:39 – UNKNOWN: We got an ejection

2:10:43 – UNKNOWN: Got two chutes

2:10:48 – UNKNOWN: Tower there’s a big ***Garbled***

2:10:50 – Pope: Fayetteville Pope, the runway’s closed, oh my God!


At 2:10 p.m., as Gerlach’s crew made what would be their final approach to the airfield, the plane “bounced as though we hit a chuckhole in the road.”

“We felt it,” the airman said. “There was a lot of looking at each other trying to figure out what it was.”

The shock of the impact pulled the yoke – the plane’s control lever – from Zaret’s hands. But Raices quickly took control of the plane.

“Suddenly, all of the intense training that goes into emergency procedures quickly took over. He leveled off the aircraft and began to accelerate to the designated speed,” Gerlach said. “As the aircraft accelerated, it began to shudder and shake, and Capt. Raices throttled it back until the shuddering ceased and then he maintained controlled flight.”

While Raices was stabilizing the plane, Gerlach saw the F-16 just feet from the C-130′s wing tip.

What happened next took seconds but felt like forever to many of the soldiers on Green Ramp. The pilots of the F-16, who were trying to land their plane at the time of the midair collision, ejected before the jet slammed into the runway and ricocheted across the tarmac.

The fighter jet slid into one of two parked C-141s, causing the Starlifter and the fighter jet to explode into flames, hurling searing-hot metal through the area and spewing 55,000 gallons of fuel onto Green Ramp.

A debris-filled fireball, estimated to be some 75-feet in diameter, tore through the waiting soldiers.

Most of the soldiers didn’t see the crash. But they heard it.

Capt. Gerald K. Bebber, chaplain of the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, recalled the high-pitched screech of the jet at open throttle give way to a deep reverberating thud before the massive explosion.

“I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed… The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame, I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling “run” from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps thirty feet beside the edge of the blast and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where . . . I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. It was the left one of a pair of C-141s parked there.”

The paratroopers at Green Ramp scattered as the fireball approached.

Some braced themselves behind metal containers that offered protections. Others headed in the opposite direction. Some found safety. Most did not. Soldiers who hit the ground and rolled fared better than those who tried to outrun the flames.

Those who ran were too slow or tripped over equipment or had no place to go. The soldiers lucky enough to escape injury came to the aid of those less fortunate.

Capt. Jonathan C. Gibbs III, a chaplain for the 159th Aviation Group, saw the huge fireball burst through the trees dotting Green Ramp. He and others ran toward a berm and dove behind it for safety.

A few seconds later, that “heard a loud ‘whoosh’ from the other side of the berm.” Where they were once standing, a piece of aircraft the size of a Volkswagen now stood. Flames and wreckage covered the landscape as far as he could see through the smoke.

Capt. Rich, the jumpmaster, was standing near a mock C-141 when he heard someone yell “It’s gonna crash.” He turned, but could only see an orange glow, surrounded by “smudgy black smoke.”

“Despite hearing the word run, for some reason I determined that my only chance of survival lay not in running but finding something solid between myself and the oncoming fireball… I think one of the compelling factors in my decision to dive behind the mock door was an over whelming understanding that there was no way in hell I could outrun the oncoming debris… I also remember … that whatever cover I found had to be within about 5 feet of where I was standing. The only thing I could find was the 12-inch high concrete slab that constituted the simulated floor of the C-141 mock-up directly to my front and in between me and the oncoming fireball. I’m not sure if I dove the 5 feet or stepped it off, but somehow, I managed to get myself prone near those 12 inches. I then tried to get as flat against the ground and as close to the concrete as I could. In fact, I would go so far as to admit that I had an overwhelming desire to burrow my way into the side of that slab.”

Rich thought he was going to die. The debris struck the mock door like “rain hitting a tin roof” or “heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign.”

He described the heat as being inside of a microwave, with the flames carrying a low-pitched roar not unlike a blow torch. He expected to burst into flames. Unbeknownst to him at the time, though, Rich’s backside was on fire.

Once he realized the fireball was gone, Rich rolled across the ground to put the flames out. Nearby, another man was “burning like a human torch.”

“No matter how hard you patted you couldn’t get the fire out,” he said. A few feet away, another soldier was burning.

“The number of wounded was almost overwhelming. Everywhere there were groups gathered around the injured trying to help them. Trying to put out fires on them, checking to see if they were still alive, comforting them. Others were running around in half panic, half dazed, looking for someone to help or something to do. Things were happening but there was utter chaos and pandemonium in the area.”

Capt. Daniel A. Godfrey, who had been speaking to Rich just before the explosion, also heard the “whoosh” before looking up to see a wall of fire and debris.

Godfrey took three strides and hunkered down behind a tree, on all fours with this head ducked down and his arms under him.

Pvt. Richard Clapp, a soldier with the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was preparing to make his first jump with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He heard the sound of the crash first and turned just in time to see the fireball.

“What the hell was that?” Clapp asked a nearby sergeant. “Run!” the sergeant screamed in response.

But Clapp, like many others, did not make it to safety. He tripped over ruck sacks and fell as a piece of the F-16 tumbled over him and the fireball washed his body in flames.

In the charred grass of Green Ramp, Clapp said time slowed. He tried to help those who were injured around him.

“I knew I was injured,” he said. “I just didn’t recognize the severity.”

Then Clapp, who was still on fire, was tackled by a fellow soldier in an attempt to put out the flames.

First Lt. Jay Nelson of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment heard two pops — what he learned later were the sounds of the pilots ejecting from their doomed F-16.

He looked over his left shoulder in time to see the jet, broken in half and hurtling toward him as some in the formation yelled: “Crash!”

“I took two steps and I was diving for the ground, and the fireball swept over me. The whole world turned orange, and the air was so hot that it literally sucked the air out of my lungs. And I blacked out.”

Nelson came to moments later, face down and on fire.

With flames licking his face, he tore off his uniform and jumped to his feet.

“Who’s hurt? Who’s hurt?” he yelled.

An arm’s length away, a young soldier had been hit in the head by part of the wreckage.

“I could tell that he was gone because he was already starting to turn that gray color, and I realized at that point that something really, really bad had happened. It didn’t quite dawn on me what exactly had happened, but I knew something really, really bad had happened.”

Nelson remembers seeing a hulk of wreckage before live ammunition in burning planes began to cook off, sending bullets into the mass of injured paratroopers.

“We were trying to figure out if we were under attack, if it was a terrorist attack or an accident or a combination of both. We didn’t know what the heck was going on.”

 Featured image and story appeared courtesy of the Fayetteville Observer and can be finished here.