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Base recalls teamwork following ramp horror

1990's -- POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- An F-16 Fighting Falcon hit the tarmac in front of this C-141 Starlifter setting it on fire March 23, 1994.  The crash spread wreckage and burning fuel into an area where paratroopers waited to board the aircraft.  The accident killed 24 Soldiers and injured more than 100 others. (Courtesy photo)

1990's -- POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- An F-16 Fighting Falcon hit the tarmac in front of this C-141 Starlifter setting it on fire March 23, 1994. The crash spread wreckage and burning fuel into an area where paratroopers waited to board the aircraft. The accident killed 24 Soldiers and injured more than 100 others. (Courtesy photo)

POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Senior Master Sgt. Eric Truesdale recalls the tragic events of March 23, 1994.  He helped with recovery efforts after an F-16 Fighting Falcon hit the tarmac in front of a C-141 Starlifter killing 24 Soldiers and injuring more than 100 others.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Becky J. LaRaia)

POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Senior Master Sgt. Eric Truesdale recalls the tragic events of March 23, 1994. He helped with recovery efforts after an F-16 Fighting Falcon hit the tarmac in front of a C-141 Starlifter killing 24 Soldiers and injuring more than 100 others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Becky J. LaRaia)

POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. (AFPN) -- A visit to Building 900 brings back a visual that retired Senior Master Sgt. Eric Truesdale said he has spent the last decade trying to forget.

It was there March 23, 1994, that 24 Fort Bragg, N.C., Soldiers were killed, more than 100 were injured and countless other troops’ lives were changed in what was then the second worst aircraft incident in Air Force history, Air Force officials said.

Sergeant Truesdale was chief loadmaster of the 23rd Wing standardization and evaluation and was in the building when the accident occurred. He said he heard a loud boom and felt the entire building move.

From a nearby window he noticed a mass of people running across the parking lot. He and a group of co-workers quickly made it to the back door of the building.

He said he was stunned by the sight of the burning C-141 Starlifter on Green Ramp and did not entirely grasp the chaos of the situation.

What he had yet to realize is he was standing in the path of destruction left after an F-16 Fighting Falcon had collided midair with a C-130 Hercules, crashed and skidded across the runway into the parked C-141. Its path had taken it through a group of Soldiers who were waiting to board the plane.

“Unbeknownst to me, I was standing in the middle of where the F-16 had (hit) the troops,” he said. “I saw people lying all over the place and a lot of wreckage and fire. I just didn’t know what happened. I was stunned.”

He said the emergency training he had received after almost 20 years in Air Force helped him to act instinctively.

“You just start doing things,” he said. “You don’t think; you react.”

Sergeant Truesdale said the first Soldier he went to was already dead.

“It looked like he was asleep,” he said. “He was lying there, and I went over and (asked) are you OK? I realized he had a severe head injury.

“(The) Soldiers are what I’ll always remember,” he said. “The reality hit me. It was like a war zone.”

The fire from the crash, 20 mm ammunition explosions from the F-16 and downed power lines were just a few of the hazards surrounding the crash site.

Sergeant Truesdale said he remembers helping his boss tear the backseat out of his personal vehicle and loading two badly burned Soldiers to take to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.

“We actually had to physically hold these people down because they were in such severe pain,” he said.

At the hospital, Sergeant Truesdale was commandeered to help clear the waiting area of the hospital and set up a temporary triage for incoming patients. He said because of the shock of the incident, he had no sense of time and does not know how long it was until the chaos ended.

People were reacting so fast to the incident he said he does not remember any emergency vehicles bringing patients to the hospital.

“All I recall is Humvees, Air Force vehicles and personally owned vehicles bringing people in,” he said.

“With such a large accident scene like that, people had to do a lot of things. The emergency services just couldn’t get there,” Sergeant Truesdale said.

He said he remembers how well everyone came together to work as a team. He said people could not tell the Airmen from the Soldiers. They were just helping where they could.

Sergeant Truesdale said the experience changed his life.

“Since that day, I see things a lot differently. I see how fragile life is,” he said. “I wanted to help people, and I tried to help people, but it was so much; it was overwhelming.”

He said he sometimes replays the scene over and over in his head.

“Is there someone else I could have helped?” he asks himself. “Is there something else I could have done?”

Sergeant Truesdale said he was not the only one who changed after the incident.

“I saw change in people around Pope because they looked at things a lot differently, and they realized what a dangerous profession we were all in,” he said. “They realized that in a moment, your life can change -- even here at Pope.”

He said the community should not forget what happened on Green Ramp.

“It is important to remember those who lost their lives that day,” he said. “They were doing what they wanted to do to serve their country. They were brave men and women who should be remembered in an honorable way.”

He said servicemembers need to be cognizant of the dangers of their career.

“The military is a dangerous profession, and at any moment, you could be going through the same thing all over again,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be in a war zone. It could be right here at Pope.”

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