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AF Base Survivor: 'Fire Was Everywhere' : Disaster: Eyewitnesses to crash of planes and rain of flaming metal describe pandemonium, heroism. Investigators arrive as death toll climbs to 20.

March 25, 1994|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — He doesn't recall the sound of the crash, just the sight of fiery death raining down.

Pandemonium broke out as panicked soldiers scrambled to escape. "I tried to run," said Army Sgt. Gregory Cowper. "I got about 10 or 15 feet, but the fire was just everywhere. Soldiers to the left of me and the right were completely on fire. It just totally engulfed the whole area. I'm not sure why I made it."

Cowper, one of some 500 soldiers assembled near the Tarmac at Pope Air Force Base Wednesday when two planes collided overhead, was hospitalized with a broken leg and burns on his hands and head. But two of his friends were among the 20 who died when the crash sent flaming metal hurtling onto soldiers waiting to begin paratroop practice.

Another 58 people were hospitalized from injuries received in the accident, which occurred when a F-16D fighter jet clipped the tail of a C-130 transport plane, reportedly less than 300 feet above the airfield, as both were attempting to land.

The crew of both planes escaped injury, but the fighter jet--whose pilots ejected--crashed in flames. It skidded at 180 m.p.h. before hitting a C-141 transport plane that was preparing to take paratroopers aloft. The transport plane exploded when flying metal punctured its fuel tanks.

Officials say they still don't know why the planes collided in midair, other than that each pilot thought he had clearance to land.

Investigators from the 9th Air Force Base in South Carolina arrived at Pope Thursday evening to launch their probe of the accident. A determination of what caused the collision is not expected for 30 days.

Brig. Gen Bobby Floyd, commander of the 23rd Wing at the air base, said preliminary inquiries show the F-16 crew did the proper thing when they ejected. "There is no way that they could've landed," he said, citing eyewitness reports that part of the jet's nose cone flew off after the collision. The jet, he said, "was out of control."

The transport plane was able to land despite losing a part of its tail.

Investigators planned to examine tapes of the control tower's instructions to the two planes that collided. And ordnance experts scoured the crash area Thursday for ammunition from the fighter jet's 20-millimeter guns.

Meanwhile, personnel at the Air Force base and adjoining Ft. Bragg Army Base tried to make sense of the disaster.

The death toll rose to 20 after five injured soldiers died overnight Wednesday. The death toll could even rise higher. Dr. William Chapman at Womack Army Hospital said 90% of the patients hospitalized had severe burns, and up to 12 also had broken bones requiring either pins or amputations.

"I would anticipate our losses would increase," he told reporters. "There are several in the hospital too unstable to transfer."

Twenty people were transported Thursday to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the Army's premiere burn unit. Thirty-eight of the injured were being treated at area non-military hospitals, said Sgt. 1st Class Skip Richey. Another 27 people were treated and released Wednesday night.

Even in the mass hysteria, with flames all around, there were examples of heroism as soldiers ignored their own injuries to help others.

"Everyone pitched in," said Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg. "Soldiers were saying, 'Don't take care of me, take care of my buddy.' "

"There were a lot of individual efforts that saved a lot of lives," said Capt. Michael Taylor, who survived the inferno with only severe hand burns. "There were kids whose (clothing) were still on fire who didn't know what to do," Taylor said. "People knocked them down and rolled them in the sand. People with canteens were hosing others down."

His bandaged hands protruded from the sleeves of his uniform as he described the tragedy at a press conference at the Air Force base. "I made about three steps and realized I wasn't going to outrun it," said Taylor, 35. "So I started rolling in the sand. When I hit the ground I didn't think I was going to get up again because you felt the heat go over your top and you could feel the scrap metal, too."

Cowper, 23, of Boise, Ida., said he doesn't remember hearing the crash or the explosion of the parked transport plane. He was sitting on his paratroop equipment, talking with buddies about 75 feet from the runway when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a giant, rushing ball of fire.

He tried to run but fell. He remembers the screams of his fellow soldiers, many of them engulfed in flames.

Cowper said he knocked one man down who was on fire. Because of his injured hands there wasn't much more he could do, but other people helped put out the flames. Despite his broken leg--"I just knew it hurt real bad," he said--he helped several other people, too, before someone helped him get out of the area.

"We all helped each other," he said.

"Then I heard ammunition start to go off and I tried to run away from it as far as I could, like everybody else was doing. I tried to get as much distance between me and the explosion site as I could."

The 23-year-old paratrooper has been in the Army five years and served in Desert Storm. But he said he'd never seen anything like Wednesday's tragedy.

"When you're going into combat you're aware that some bad things are going to happen because that's the nature of the game," he said from his hospital bed. "But nobody expected this. When you're losing people that you know, good men, highly professional people, there's no comparison."

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