~ Tragedy On A Small Island ~
Dr. K. A. Crooks

~ A Survival Situation ~

The gear came down, the flaps let out and the engines altered their whine then suddenly the aircraft banged, screamed and lurched. Out the window was flame. I immediately knew we were in for a world of hurt. I already had been in some fairly nasty car crashes by this time in my life, and the sounds of metal under strain and the feel were familiar. Oddly, I was fairly calm and remarked, "Oh, this is going to be a fun ride." I quickly checked my seatbelt, and discovered that at the initial contact with the ground, my sleeve had opened up the old-style belt clasp enough that the belt would come loose with any motion. I quickly clamped it back down and then started to fish for my helmet under the table. I didn't have a chance. The aircraft had hit the ground again, and now was a twisting, shuddering, sliding tube of hurtling metal. It seemed that fire was in front of me, but this probably was the effect of my head being bounced around and seeing the flames from the window. The aircraft had left the main gear and some right wing on the lip of the approach cliff and had bounced up a bit into the air before coming down hard. The airframe, now under heavy stress, slid down the runway where the empennage and fuselage separated ways and both headed off the runway.

When the aircraft came to a halt, Van Horn, sitting bulkhead side, said, "Let's go!" and stepped over or around me and out he went. My right leg, however, was trapped by something. I had to wrestle it free, because, quite frankly, I had better places to be than in a burning Boeing. Some of the MRCS equipment had come loose and enveloped my leg, so while freeing myself didn't take long, it was long enough that I was the last crewmember to exit the aircraft forward of the ESC positions near the tail. I reached the left overwing hatch with flames swirling around me. I looked out at the dark, bitter cold and said to myself: "I can't believe we landed in this!" In my struggle to leave the aircraft, I left behind my parka, my helmet, my flashlight, my survival gear and anything else that might have been helpful. I had on a fisherman's hat, a Nomex flightsuit, a pair of mukluks, and now faced blizzard conditions with at least a back and leg injured in the crash. I was into what one past instructor called "a survival situation." I stepped onto the left wing, and smartly executed a PLF that would have made any parachute instructor proud. However, in its execution, my glasses and hat came off. Where the glasses fell, I couldn't tell, but I could see the black hat. I reached back through the edge of the flames to retrieve it. My survival training had taken hold - I was going to lose precious body heat through an exposed head. I needed the cap.

Hat on head, I surveyed my surroundings. My initial fear was being run over by emergency vehicles in the dark. However, I quickly realized not only wasn't I on the runway, but my exit put me on the pounding surf, not the hangar side of the aircraft. The aircraft was fully enveloped and I had no idea where anyone was, and whether I was one of 24 survivors, or the only one who made it. My initial disorientation came from the 180-degree turn the sliding fuselage made by the time it came to rest in the beachside ravine off the runway. Most of the front-end crew made it out either through the cockpit escape hatch or the pilot's window. The bottom hatch was safer tumbling out of the window proved extremely hazardous. The other crewmembers either went out the over-wing hatches or were sitting next to the fuselage-empennage separation point that is, where the tail came off. This was the terror of those sitting in the ESC and crew rest seats in the rear of the airplane. For Carson and Maxwell, facing aft from their seats at the last Raven position, the scene of the tail separation would have been seared in their memory. The twisting metal of the separating fuselage would have been as blades in a blender. The aircraft's slide off the runway, down the ravine, through the flat terrain where broken-up building materials punched holes in the aircraft, must have been a journey that can have no earthly description. Carson reported a ball of fire that rose from the base of the plane and traveled up the aisle. In the smoke, fire and confusion, the Raven 4s knew life was only to be found forward, and upon the aircraft coming to a stop, they went for the right over-wing hatch actually beating Ravens 1 and 2 through the door. From there, a climb to safety remained.

~ The Tail ~

For the ESC and crew-rest 24th members, only the hand of fate separated the wounded from the mortally injured or immediately dead. From accounts, Bennett and Mayfield, probably sitting next to each other, died instantly, as probably did young Parsons. SSgt. Steven Balcer's body was found later in the wreckage. MSgt. Kish was discovered dead outside the aircraft. TSgt. Gerke was seriously injured. Loren, still alive, was lying in his crew seat that apparently separated from the floor.

The visibility was so bad, I couldn't see the waves of the ocean, but I knew that rescue was not in that direction. However, Van Horn was. I saw his slight shape through the blowing snow, walking parallel to the beach. Trying to catch up, I tripped constantly in the snow. I couldn't figure out why. It turned out that I was trying to navigate piles of discarded lumber from torn down buildings. While the mukluks were great for traction and warmth, they weren't worth a damn for ankle support and my whole right side, from hip to toe, seemed to be in some trouble. Calling out to Bill, I got his attention and I used him to help me through the snow. I remarked to myself how odd it was that Van Horn seemed to glide over the top of the snow while I lurched through it. The one advantage of being light on his feet, I supposed at the time. Bill was Balto, and I was the sled.

We were in the unenviable position of being on the wrong side of the burning aircraft and neither had any idea of the fate of the rest of the crew. "I wonder if anyone else made it?" yelled Van Horn. "I don't know, we might check it out as we go by," I yelled back. With Bill as lead sled dog, we angled to the separation point. Van Horn spotted them first. Outlined against the fires, human figures. They were right up against the burning opening of the separated fuselage. "Stay here," Van Horn said, and exhausted, I stood, doubled over, on the top of a small knoll. Bill had reached Loren next to a crew rest seat. Van Horn tried to move him. Loren was a big man; about 30 or so pounds heavier than Bill. He couldn't budge him. With my moment's rest, I barged in, moved Bill aside, and pulled Loren away from the blaze. Now, size mattered. While the flames towered over me, up to this point the howling wind had kept the fire off Loren. However, winds can change or simply diminish at any time. I also well remembered the ground collision of two KC-135s at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio when my father was chief of operational maintenance. Four-engine jets can detonate like massive bombs and I knew it was only moments before this jet would blow. Already, the aircraft had kicked off a small burst, but nothing like what I feared would happen shortly. I expected to die, but we couldn't let Loren lie there. I moved him as carefully as I could under the circumstances. I worried about the potential problems of broken bones, but had no choice. My instincts about the aircraft's volatility proved right. As soon as I had turned to Bill and suggested he stay with Loren while I went to get help, the aircraft exploded. The bright reddish flames shot hundreds of feet into the air, with huge chunks of metal now headed my way. I turned, and with a hop, skip and a jump, I landed face-first into the snow and tried to bury myself into my little black hat. Pieces of aircraft landed all around me, but I was lucky. When I sensed the light dying down, I looked around. Van Horn was ok, the ESC fellow apparently wandered off as I couldn't see him, so quickly beginning to feel the effects of my injuries, I headed for the runway up the hill. No climb seemed harder. My reserve energy was completely exhausted. When I arrived at the top, young fellows in oddly inappropriate clothes for the weather, such as t-shirts, asked follow up questions to my startling announcement that there were still people alive "down there." As no one had come even part of the way down to greet me, they clearly had not assumed there were any survivors left. "How many were on the plane?" one asked. I was stunned that they didn't know this already. I knew the figure I had counted the parachutes and seats. There were so many seats and extra chutes. I told them, "twenty-four." I gave them a report of the people I left and their location. They put me in a station wagon that was stalled out and stuck in the snow. Clad only in my cap and wet flight suit, I sat in the freezing car and watched the bright yellow and bluish-white tinged flames dissolve what was left of '664. In the back seat, an ESC troop was wrapped in a blanket, apparently out cold.

K. Crooks

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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