Crash Anniversary Finds Survivors Divided
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) _ Emotional memorial ceremonies have marked the year since 248 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division perished in a plane crash in Newfoundland, but efforts by some family members to change the way the military transports troops have strained feelings among the survivors.
Almost all the families have filed lawsuits against Arrow Air, the Miami- based airline operating the charter flight that crashed Dec. 12, 1985, in Gander on a flight home from a Middle East peacekeeping mission. Out-of-court settlements have been reached in about 120 cases, according to the airline’s insurer, Associated Aviation Underwriters.
But the aftermath of the disaster touched this Army base, and the survivors, in different ways. One widow, Malinda Parris, built the 6-foot-tall Uncle Sam mailbox that she and her husband, Capt. Rudy Parris, had always wanted. A group of widows ordered commemorative T-shirts imprinted with 248 stars.
Others were outspoken in their grief and anger.
Christine Manion, whose husband confided his fear of flying on a plane he felt was overloaded and in poor mechanical condition in a phone call to her just before boarding, led a group to Washington in March and demanded changes in the way the government charters military flights.
Lillian ″Ann″ Wright is still trying to meet with President Reagan to discuss her son John’s death at age 23.
Some of the widows were not pleased with such reform efforts.
″They still want to be such a great part of the Army that they don’t want to insult the Army,″ Mrs. Manion said her critics.
Mrs. Parris said she and her husband were ″star-spangled people,″ and even after the crash, she holds no grudges against the Army. She does blame Arrow Air, however.
″Whoever in the Army contracted the company, I’m assuming they contracted them with good intentions,″ she said. ″Regardless of who Arrow Air is flying, it’s their responsibility to see that the plane is airworthy.″
The widows’ group that formed several months after the crash - called MFO- S248 for Multinational Forces and Observers-Survivors 248, combining the name of the Middle East peacekeeping force with the number of victims - wrote letters to the Federal Aviation Administration and to congressmen, asking for answers, Mrs. Parris said.
But unlike the group that went the Washington, she said, ″Our design is to direct our anger in a direction that will do some good.″
Mrs. Manion recalled one briefing for widows at Fort Campbell.
″I felt like I was being brainwashed. For three hours I was surrounded by eight″ fellow widows, she said, but women she described as wives of higher ranking officers who were more deeply invested in the Army.
″When I went back home, I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to hurt my country by going to Washington’ because they said, ’Mrs. Manion, you don’t want to go to Washington. America has egg on its face and you don’t want to make your country look bad, do you?‴
Mrs. Manion said she quickly overcame her doubts and went to Washington with other widows and parents of soldiers from all over the country. With them they carried more than 28,000 signatures on petitions calling for changes in the way military flights are chartered, including closer checks on the performance and finances of charter airlines.
″We went to over 60 congressmen’s offices in two days,″ Mrs. Manion said. ″Some had prepared speeches or were just sounding off for the press to pick up on.″
Others, such as Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., initiated legislation that became law, requiring the Defense Department to inspect military charter aircraft, a job previously handled by the FAA.
″We appreciate what the congressman did, but the bill that passed has so many loopholes,″ Mrs. Wright said. ″We want the planes to be inspected every 24 hours, not just periodically.″
Mrs. Wright also complained that a victims’ fund created by donations after the crash had still not been divided among the survivors. ″For the young mothers with children, a $50,000 life insurance policy does not go far, especially after funeral expenses,″ she said.
Maj. Daniel Schmidt said last week, however, that the money would be disbursed among the 248 families by month’s end. The fund now totals $322,000, depleted from its original $431,000 by such expenses as flying relatives to the various memorial services, Schmidt said.
Mrs. Wright said she didn’t need the money but would continue her crusade ″so we might be able to save some other soldiers. Right now, I feel like my son was murdered because somebody did not do their job.″
Despite their anger toward the Army, Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Manion have attended memorial services for the soldiers at Fort Campbell.
Immediately after the crash, President Reagan attended a service. And in September, a park on the base and another in nearby Hopkinsville, each planted with 248 trees, were dedicated.
Fort Campbell officials planned a commemorative ceremony for Dec. 12.
At Edward Manion’s gravesite, a granite bench flanks a giant headstone engraved with verses from a play Mrs. Manion wrote and produced on the base: ″We have been postponed, to be continued at another time. We touch - if only we could touch.″
All the memorials ″are a wonderful tribute to the men, but the only real tribute is going to be changing legislation,″ Mrs. Manion said.
″The Army’s been great at memorials, but I haven’t seen any generals or colonels put their careers on the line and go to Congress and say, ’We’re not flying any more of our men under these conditions.‴
In a phone conversation with her husband just before the crash, Mrs. Manion said, he cried out of fear that the plane was not safe.
Because she made public what he had told her, Mrs. Manion said, her neighbors on the base shunned her.
″I’d hear people say, ‘Oh, she hates the Army, she’s just such a bitter person,’ but I don’t hate the Army,″ she said.
″They sent chaplains to my house. The brigade commander himself came and wanted me to focus my grief on my husband’s death.
″I told him he had tunnel vision, and at that point he told me that Ed was in the Army because he loved it.
″I told him that Ed was in the Army because he loved his country.″