It was a good day for a jump. March 23, 1994. The skies were clear with moderate winds of five to seven MPH, temperatures a comfortable mid-sixties.
Some 500 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were assembled around the parking area known as “Green Ramp”, part of a joint exercise between Fort Bragg North Carolina, and nearby Pope Air Force base.
There were two parachute drops scheduled that day. The sky above was filled with aircraft, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts and C-130 aircraft, conducting training.
On the ground, paratroops of the First Brigade, 504th Infantry Regiment, and 505th Infantry Regiment prepared to board Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Lockheed C-141 Starlifter aircraft parked on Green Ramp, or practiced jumps from one of several concrete tail mock-ups or just waited, resting in a large personnel shed called the “PAX”, or surrounding lawns.
An F-16D Fighting Falcon was conducting a simulated flame-out on final approach to the runway, with two pilots at the stick. 300-feet above tree level, the giant four-engine turboprop military transport known as the C-130E Hercules, was making the same approach.
The Fighter’s nose struck the tail of the transport, severing the C-130E’s right elevator. F-16 pilots applied full after burner trying to recover the aircraft, as its frame began to disintegrate. The transport was able to recover, veering off to circle the air field and assess the damage. Meanwhile both F-16 pilots ejected with the fighter still on afterburner, hurtling toward Green Ramp.
The shattered wreckage of the F-16 hit the ground between two parked C-130s before striking the right wing of the C-141B Starlifter, puncturing 55,000 gallon fuel tanks. A great fireball of flaming wreckage some 75-feet in diameter ricocheted across the tarmac, hurtling toward 82nd Airborne personnel staging for that second jump.
“S. Sgt. Daniel E. Price of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, sacrificed his life to save a female soldier he had never met before. Spc. Estella Wingfield, an information systems operator with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, remembered:
He looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the shirt, threw me several feet in the air and jumped on top of me…. An instant later, I heard the blast, felt the extreme heat from the explosion and the debris falling on us…. After the explosion and the rounds stopped going off, he whispered in my ear, “Crawl out from underneath me.”” I did and took off running. History.army.mil
Captain Gerald K. Bebber, Chaplain to the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain, remembers he:
“heard the high pitched screech of a jet fighter airplane at open throttle from beyond the pack shed [sic] suddenly give way to a deep reverberating thud and 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”.
Jump master Captain James B. Rich was conducting a pre-jump briefing by one of those concrete mock-ups, and remembers the “overwhelming understanding that there was no way in hell I could outrun the oncoming debris…” Captain Rich “felt fully exposed” as flaming chunks of white hot metal, rained down. It was like “heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign“.
2d Battalion S. Sgt. Michael T. Kelley remembered nuclear event training and hit the ground as the fireball rolled over him. When he got up he was on fire. Sergeant Kelley dropped and rolled as a would-be rescuer jumped on his body, to put out the flames. A second beat back the fire with “a wrap of some kind” while a third came up with water. When the flames went out, Sgt. Kelly had severe burns over 70 per cent of his body, including the lower one-third of his face.
Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, began to roll when the fire caught up with him. “Ammunition was going off”, he said, “I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.”
Rank held no distinction that day, Privates to Captains age eighteen to forty, pulling one another from the flames and shielding the wounded, with their bodies. Twenty three were killed outright, another eighty severely injured. One badly burned soldier survived nine agonizing months before succumbing, to his wounds.
82d Airborne commander Major General William M. Steele, remembered:
“It was soldiers saving soldiers. Soldiers putting out fires on other soldiers; soldiers dragging soldiers out of fires; resuscitating; giving soldiers CPR; putting tourniquets on limbs that had been severed; putting out fires on their bodies, sometimes with their own hands. Anything they could do to care for their buddies that were more seriously injured they were doing. They can’t do that without knowing how. They responded the way they would in combat”.
The Green Ramp disaster of March 23, 1994 was the greatest single-day loss of life suffered by the 82nd Airborne division, since the Battle of the Bulge.