The crash at Fort Wainwright

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

It was a long, but smooth flight for the paratroopers.

Leaving Edmonton five hours before, they were told to prepare for final approach by the flight engineer. But they didn't need to be told. The sudden drops in their stomach told the soldiers that minutes later they would be touching down on the runway and would begin their task.

Suddenly the aircraft shuddered violently beneath them. The Hercules transport slammed into a snow bank, spun out of control and the fuselage tore open, throwing the passengers from their seats.

Rescuers rushed to the last known position of the aircraft. When they arrived at the scene, survivors were struggling to pulled themselves from the wreckage. Sadly, there were no signs of life in the mangled tail section.

Twenty years ago tonight, nine Canadian servicemen lost their lives in the tragic crash of a C-130 Hercules transport at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Among the casualties were six soldiers from Petawawa.

The Special Service Force was deploying to the most northerly American state to participate in Brim Frost, a joint Canadian-U. S. military exercise being held in the waning days of the Cold War with the Soviets. The $15 million exercise would involve 26,000 troops, 120 aircraft and 8,000 vehicles.

In the days before the first soldiers shipped out of Petawawa, tragedy had already struck the Canadian Airborne Regiment. One night, five members of 2 Commando were returning from Ottawa when their car was struck by a semi tractor trailer on Highway 17 near Arnprior. Cpl. Keith Russell, Trooper Mark Cameron, Trooper Shawn Hilliker, Trooper Joseph Ross and Trooper Brian Thompson were killed instantly.

On the night of Jan. 29, 1989, three Hercules aircraft carrying troops and equipment approached Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, Alaska. The first Hercules landed without incident at the airfield. Then at 6:47 p. m., air traffic controllers lost contact with the second plane. The tower did not receive a distress call, indicating all was normal with the flight.

There was a thick fog over the airfield that evening. The Hercules struck the snowbank 600 feet short of the runway. After the plane broke in half, Capt. Mike Jorgensen recalled climbing out from the wreckage with a broken ankle and a cut ear.

"Everything was so normal," Jorgensen would recount later. "Then, we hit hard and spun around. There were screams. Then I guess I blacked out. When I came to I remember I was just scrambled. There was some screaming and moaning. My foot was crushed. I remember falling out the door, or maybe it was part of the fuselage that had opened up."

The third Hercules was diverted to the Fairbanks airport after the control tower was informed of the crash. Of the eight crewmen and 10 paratroopers aboard the Hercules, there were only nine survivors. Five were critically injured including Jorgensen (who would go on to command the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment),Trooper Sylvain Chenard and Trooper Stephan Poulin.

The losses to the Canadian Airborne Regiment were Warrant Officer Joseph Arsenault, 33, Master Cpl. John MacKinnon, 35, Cpl. Robert Allen, 24, and Cpl. Paul McGinnis, 24. Master Bombardier Donald Smith, 28 and Cpl. Lee Wright, 26, from the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, were also killed.

Three other servicemen from CFB Edmonton perished in the crash: Navy Lieut. Richard Moore, 37, Cpl. Joseph Paul-Emile Castouguay, 36, and Master Cpl. Louis Papineau-Couture, 40, who died in a Fairbanks hospital a few days later.

The exercise was immediately cancelled while four Hercules with 450 paratroopers remained on the ground at Edmonton.

Meanwhile, the community was shocked by news of the disaster. Flags were flown at half mast on all government buildings including Pembroke city hall. A moment of silence was observed at the Valley Bowl in Petawawa. The tragedy had hit close to home for one Pembroke family, as John MacKinnon was born and raised in the area.

A week later, 1,500 gathered for a special memorial service at Dundonald Hall. Among the members of the public and soldiers in attendance were dignitaries including MP Len Hopkins and MPP Sean Conway, and representatives from the British and American militaries. The service was conducted by Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy. In front of an altar were wreaths for each of the six soldiers.

Brig.-Gen. Ian Douglas, commander of the Special Service Force, addressed the service saying the exercise called Brim Frost played a crucial role in the joint defence of North America.

"The deaths, which we are grieving, not only demonstrate the frailty of human life but also the fact that training for the defence of our continent, which many in this country take for granted, can extract the supreme sacrifice from our young soldiers and airmen," said the commander.

"It is in such tragic times as this that the true family spirit, about which we so often speak, manifests itself. Over the last week or so I have seen outpourings of sympathy and concern, coupled with very positive actions which have made me feel very warm and proud indeed. Yes, it hurts and no, we will not forget them but will use their memory as an inspiration for the future."

The six soldiers who fell at Fort Wainwright have not been forgotten. Today, 2 Field Ambulance's headquarters on Montgomery Road is named the Warrant Officer Keith Arsenault Building. Many of the names of the lost also appear on plaques in the Home Fires Park, including Master Cpl. John MacKinnon.

Lest We Forget.

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