GANDER, Canada — A chartered jetliner carrying American peacekeeping troops home from the Middle East for Christmas crashed and burned on takeoff here Thursday, killing all 250 soldiers and eight crew members aboard.
The DC-8 aircraft, operated by the Miami-based charter company Arrow Air, was taking the military personnel to Ft. Campbell, Ky., when it crashed in a wooded area shortly after takeoff from Gander International Airport in eastern Newfoundland.
The soldiers, 247 men and three women from the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, were returning to Ft. Campbell, their headquarters, from a six-month tour of duty in the Sinai Peninsula. All were members of the Multinational Force and Observers, a 2,600-member, 11-nation team assigned to monitor compliance with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.
Names Being Withheld
In Washington, a Pentagon official said the names of the dead will not be released until they have been positively identified.
At Ft. Campbell, the families and friends of the soldiers learned of the disaster as they assembled for a brass-band welcome that had long been planned. All the flags on the post were immediately lowered to half-staff.
"There was grief, there was concern," said the post spokesman, Maj. James Gleisberg, adding that the families keeping vigil "didn't know if their husbands, or fathers or loved ones were actually on board."
The plane had stopped briefly at Gander to refuel and was carrying 50 tons of jet fuel when it took off. Eyewitnesses said it rushed down the runway, skimmed across the Trans-Canada Highway and crashed near the shore of Gander Lake, spilling weapons and Christmas presents across a broad swath of snow-covered woods. Burning fuel left a trail of brush fires that smoldered hours after the crash.
Canadian Transport Minister Donald Mazankowski said, "The plane got airborne, probably didn't reach a thousand feet . . . and crashed."
"Where it came down, it obviously exploded on impact," Canadian Transport Department spokesman Bruce Reid said after returning to the airport following a helicopter tour of the site. "Everything in the area is charred. We have no indication it exploded in the air."
Keith Head, an Avis car rental agent, said he had just pulled up to the terminal at 6:45 a.m. local time (2:15 a.m. PST) when he saw the blue-and-white plane move down the 10,000-foot runway. "Then I saw the sky all light up and then a huge explosion and then a mushroom-like cloud, exactly like a mushroom cloud," he said.
Eyewitnesses agreed there was nothing out of the ordinary about the takeoff. "I didn't hear anything," said Judy Parson, another car rental agent at the airport. "But suddenly I just saw a glare in the sky. There was a flash, like a sunburst. It lasted for a few seconds and then I heard an explosion."
The cockpit voice and flight data recorders, which could provide crucial information about the last seconds of the ill-fated flight, were recovered from the wreckage and sent to Ottawa for analysis today at the National Research Council.
Peter Boag, the investigator in charge of the crash for the Canada Aviation Safety Board, said the recorders were damaged by fire, "but the exact amounts and the consequences of that fire I'm not aware of at this time." He declined all comment on the cause of the crash.
Head and others who rushed to the site within minutes of the crash said there was no sign of survivors. The bodies of the victims and debris were scattered for hundreds of yards along the plane's path. "Some of the bodies had been blown out of their uniforms," Head said.
Thursday night, Arrow Air released the names of the DC-8's crew: Capt. John Griffin; First Officer John Robert Conley; Flight Engineer Mike Fowler; Maia Matasovski, flight service manager, and flight attendants Jean Serafin, Desiree McKay, Ruthie Phillips and Stacey Cutler. The three cockpit crew members were based in Miami; the others in the New York area.
Clipped Tops of Trees
The plane had barely cleared the runway when it clipped the tops of trees just south of the runway, according to Staff Sgt. H. Johnston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He said it crashed "a quarter to half a mile south" of the airport, toward Gander Lake. "It had gone over the Trans-Canada (highway) and down into a wooded area . . . just off a small hill."
The plane, a stretched version of the DC-8, left Cairo on Wednesday and stopped to refuel in Cologne, West Germany, then stopped here, and was on the last leg of its flight to Ft. Campbell.
Although reporters pressed Boag on the cause of the crash and raised the possibility of a terrorist bomb or other sabotage, the investigator refused comment. Johnston told newsmen that "there is nothing to indicate any act of terrorism."