Families remember crash in Canada that killed 248

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The words still turn Malinda Parris' stomach 20 years later: "No survivors."

She first heard them when she was preparing to welcome her husband home for the holidays from a peacekeeping mission in Egypt. She had decorated the house, baked wildly to fill the kitchen with his favorite foods and was dressing to go to a homecoming ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky.

All that stopped when she saw the news on television.

A plane carrying her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Rudy Parris, a helicopter pilot, and 247 other soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division had crashed and burned in Canada.

It was two weeks before Christmas.

"It wasn't a gradual let down. It was like jumping out of a helicopter or airplane. The fall was endless," said Parris, of Herndon, Ky., just outside Fort Campbell. "To go from that peak to the depths of hell was more than devastating."

The peacetime crash still resonates as the Army prepares to honor the soldiers with military and civil memorial ceremonies Monday. The 101st also is grieving new deaths in Iraq -- 19 Fort Campbell soldiers were killed in November.

The Arrow Air DC-8 crashed seconds after taking off on Dec. 12, 1985, from Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, where it had refueled for the final leg of its return to Fort Campbell. Eight civilian flight crew members also died. It is among the worst aircraft disasters in Canadian history.

Most of the soldiers on the plane were with the division's 502nd Infantry Regiment, returning from a six-month deployment to Egypt, where they had been stationed in the Sinai to ensure compliance with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Retired Lt. Gen. Hubert Smith, then commander of division support, recalls waiting with the returning soldiers' families in a gymnasium for the homecoming.

People were excited, smiling and laughing. Many wives had spoken with their husbands by phone just hours before.

Then came news of the crash.

"We're used to dying in battle," said Smith, of Clarksville, Tenn. "But to lose that number of people in peacetime, it was a waste."

President Reagan consoled families at a memorial service days later.

Letters flooded in from strangers across the country.

"It was like they had been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. It was just terrible. And I'm talking about people who didn't know any of them," said Ted Crozier, a retired Army colonel who was then mayor of Clarksville.

The day of the crash was the beginning of a "funeral that virtually went on to a year," says George Heath, who was a division public affairs officer at Fort Campbell.

The crash won't be forgotten soon, says Heath. "It will be all right by me if it is a day that lives in infamy," he said.

An investigation completed three years later by the Canadian Air Safety Board and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board determined that ice on the wings and excess cargo had compromised the plane during its takeoff from Gander. Not everyone was satisfied; among other things, there had been questions among the families about the possibility of terrorism, since the crash occurred while kidnapped Americans were being held in Lebanon.

An insurance carrier for Arrow Air paid out millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements.

While it took years to find closure, Malinda Parris 61, is remarried now -- to another Fort Campbell soldier, who is preparing to leave for Iraq.

She said the bitterness that followed Rudy's death has subsided.

"I have been upset. I have been unhappy. I have cried. And I'm tired of doing that," Parris said. "You can't change it."

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