'Fire Was Just Everywhere'

March 25, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

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

"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."

Sergeant 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 his hands and head. Two of his friends were among the 20 who died when the crash sent flaming metal hurtling onto soldiers waiting to begin jumping practice.

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

The crews of both planes escaped injury, but the fighter -- whose pilots ejected -- crashed in flames. It skidded at 180 mph into 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, other than that each pilot thought he had clearance to land.

Investigators from the 9th Air Force Base in South Carolina arrived at Pope last night to launch a 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 that 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 transport plane was able to land despite losing part of its tail.

Investigators planned to examine tapes of the control tower's instructions to the two planes that collided.

Personnel at the Air Force base and the adjoining Army base at Fort Bragg tried yesterday to make sense of the disaster.

The death toll rose to 20 after five injured soldiers died overnight Wednesday. Many were in critical condition. Dr. William Chapman at Womack Army Hospital said 90 percent of the 58 patients being treated at military hospitals had severe burns, and up to 12 also had broken bones requiring pins or amputations.

Even with flames all around, soldiers ignored their own injuries to help others.

"There were a lot of individual efforts that saved a lot of lives," said Capt. Michael Taylor, 35, who sustained severe hand burns. "There were kids whose [uniforms] were still on fire who didn't know what to do. People knocked them down and rolled them in the sand. People with canteens were hosing others down.

"I made about three steps and realized I wasn't going to outrun it," he said. "So, I started rolling in the sand. When I hit the ground, I didn't think I was going to get up again."

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