On the morning of December 12, 1985, at 0645 local time (0515 EST), Arrow Airlines flight 1285, a DC-8-63 charter carrying 248 passengers and a crew of eight, crashed just after takeoff form Gander International Airport, Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. All on board perished as a result of the impact or the post-crash fire, which, fed by the contents of the stricken aircraft’s full fuel tanks, took local fire fighters nearly four hours to bring under control and approximately thirty hours to completely extinguish. The firefighters were hampered in their efforts because of the rugged terrain, which initially prevented more than one fire truck at a time from being used.
The passengers on the ill-fated charter were U.S. Soldiers. All but twelve were members of the 3d Battalion, 502d Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); eleven were from other Forces Command units; and one was a CID agent form the Criminal Investigations Command. They were returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home station of the 101st Airborne Division, after completing a six-month tour of duty in the Sinai with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). This international peacekeeping organization, made up of contingents from ten nations, had been established under terms of a protocol between Egypt and Israel signed on August 3, 1981. The MFO has had the mission of implementing security provisions contained in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Perhaps no other event in its peacetime history has so wrenched the soul and torn at the hear of the US Army as the Gander tragedy, which ranked as the worst military air disaster in the nation’s history. But in spite of its grief, the Army moved quickly in responding to the tragedy.
Approximately two hours after the crash, at 0730 EST, Major General William G. Moor, Director of Operational Readiness and Mobilization, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, activated a Crisis Response Cell within the Army Operations Center at the Pentagon. Operating around the clock during the nine day period following the crash, the crisis response cell functioned as the Army’s nerve center for all activities associated with the tragedy, which included dispatching an Army team to Gander to assist the Canadians in recovery operations; sending a coordination team to the Air Force Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where the remains would be transferred for identification and preparation for burial; coordinating Military Airlift Command flights to transport the remains from Gander to Dover; reconstituting medical and dental records to assist in the identification process; notifying the next of kin’ and planning for the various memorial services honoring the dead which were held at Gander, Dover, and Fort Campbell.
The Headquarters Department of the Army Crisis Response Cell included representatives form the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans (ODSCOPS), Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (ODCSPER), Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics (ODCSLOG), Office of the Surgeon General (OTSG) Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (OCPA), and other Army Staff agencies as needed. Because the personnel issues associated with the crash were of such critical importance, ODCSPER formed a Personnel Contingency Cell in the Army Operations Center to support the Crisis Response Cell. Initially the Personnel Contingency Cell focused its attention on the task of notifying the victims next of kin and reconstituting the victims’ medical and dental records which were also destroyed aboard the downed flight. Subsequently, the cell turned its efforts towards appointing and training casualty assistance officers, reviewing procedures for preparation of replacements for overseas movement, and assisting the families of the crash victims.
Shortly after he received notice of the tragedy, General Mazwell R. Thurman, Army Vice Chief of Staff, directed Major General John S. Crosby, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, to lead an Army team to the crash site. The mission of the Gander Response Team was to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in search and recovery operations to arrange for shipment of the remains of the Army’s dead to the United States.
Major General Crosby and his team, which included Dr. Robert R. McMeekin (COL, USA), Director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, two of his pathologists and a forensic Photographer, as well as representatives form ODCSPER, OCPA, Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison (OCLL), Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH), and the US Army Military Personnel Center (MILPERCEN), arrived at Gander at about 1500 (Local time) or approximately eight hours after the crash. Late on the evening of December 12, seventeen graves registration specialists from Fort Lee, Virginia, (12 soldiers from the 16th Field Service Company’s graves registration platoon and 5 senior NCOs assigned to the Quartermaster School) joined the team. A second forensic photographer form the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arrived the following day. The Gander Response Team could also count on logistical and communications support from some forty-five sailors assigned to the United States Naval Station at Argentina, which was about 200 miles from Gander, and a smaller contingent of US Navy personnel with the 770 Communications Research Division stationed at the Canadian Forces Base in Gander. US Navy personnel at Gander, the first Americans at the crash site, assisted airport officials in maintaining security at the site until relieved by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
The presence of a general officer at Gander and the effective support of Mr. George Seidlein, who represented the National Transportation Safety Board at the crash site, were key ingredients in the quick establishment of good rapport with Canadian authorities, and the early decision to release the remains of the crash victims to transfer them to the Air Force Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. A memorandum of understanding as signed on December 14 by representatives of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, the Department of Justice for the Province of Newfoundland, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the United States National Transportation Safety Board and the United States Department of Defense as the executive agent of the MFO. The memorandum authorized the transfer of all remains to Dover, where the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology would perform pathological examinations and take toxicological specimens “under the control and supervision” of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board.
The transfer of remains began on December 16 and was completed two days later. Redeployment of the Gander Response Team got underway on December 18 and was finished on December 21.
A second Gander Response Team departed the US for the crash site on January 8, 1986, following a decision by US and Canadian authorities to renew search operations because Canadian and US pathologists at Dover determined that at least two bodies had not been recovered. Headed again by Major General Crosby, the new task force had the expanded mission of working closely with the RCMP in conducting a thorough search of the crash scene to recover human remains, personal effects and military equipment which the initial search and recovery operation may have overlooked.
To reduce the potential for misunderstanding between the RCMP, which remained in charge of the crash site, the Army graves registration teams working the site, Major General Crosby required that each soldier be briefed on the Army’s mission and the exact relationship between US and Canadian agencies at the crash site. Also, a distinct chain of command, including designated personnel at all levels to coordinate requirements with the Canadians, was maintained. The second search effort began on January 11 and was completed successfully and ahead of schedule on February 3. The task force returned to the US on February 6.
On December 13 HQDA formed another ad hoc organization to coordinate all US Army activities at Dover Air Force Base. Headed by Brigadier General Claude E. Fernandez, Jr., Directory of Manpower, Programs and Budget, ODCPER, the seven-member Dover Coordination Team was in place on the morning of December 14th. It included representatives from the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans (ODCSOPS), Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics (ODCSLOG), Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH), and Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (OCPA). The ODCSPER representative arrived in the late evening of December 13 and assumed responsibility for coordinating HQDA actions from the 123 member honor guard dispatched by the 101st Airborne Division which had arrived at Dover earlier in that day.
The Army expanded the Dover Coordination Team on December 15 by adding one “more” representative each from ODCSPER, ODCSLOG, and ODCSOPS, as well as four administrative personnel to provide around the clock services until all remains had been transported to Dover. Two protocol representatives, one from the Army Staff and one from the Military District of Washington, also arrived at Dover on December 15 to plan the arrival ceremony honoring the first remains from Gander on December 16.
After completing arrangements for the December 16 ceremony, related tasks included on-site public affairs coverage, making arrangements for family members of the deceased who attended the ceremony, and making protocol arrangements for the large number of dignitaries who attended the event. The Dover Coordination Team largely accomplished its task when it provided the required personnel and material support for the AFIP’s Dover operations. The original contingent returned to Washington, DC area on December 22 and 23, leaving a small, four-man cell to provide logistical and personnel support for the continuing identification effort and the shipment of remains for burial.
The USAF Mortuary Control Center at Dover, a sixteen-member group headed by Colonel John J. Maloney, Director of Housing and Services for Headquarters, Military Airlift Command (MAC), was activated in accordance with local plans for handling mass casualty situations as contained in the 436th Airlift Wing Mass Casualty Plan. The Mortuary Control Center issued daily situation reports on the status of mortuary operations and assisted the AFIP in coordinating mortuary activities, obtaining expendable supplies and other base support, and controlling the pool of volunteers who assisted at the mortuary. During the initial phase of operations at Dover there was some overlap in responsibilities between the control center and the Army’s coordination team which caused confusion, particularly with regards to equipment and supply matters. To reduce such inter-service control problems n the future the Dover AFB commander later recommended that visiting contingents from other services and agencies receive briefings on the mass casualty plan and be advised on their requirements to augment local resources; that special requests and requirements be coordinated with Dover AFB action offices and approved by the Director of the Mortuary Control Center –in his role as the Wing Project Officer, and that command and control responsibilities be vested in the Wing Project Officer/Director of the Mortuary Control Center, alone.
The Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center (CMAOC) at the US Army Military Personnel Center in Alexandria, VA, expanded by augmentees from other offices within MILPERCEN, operated on a 24-hour basis during the initial period following the Gander disaster. Its primary responsibilities were to notify the next of kin, to provide family assistance, and to perform casualty support actions such as documentation for pay and benefits awards and decorations, posthumous promotions and reconstitution of personnel and medical records which had been lost in the crash and which were needed to help AFIP personnel at the Dover mortuary identify the remains of the crash victims.
The CMAOC worked closely with the thirty-three Casualty Area Commands in the continental United States to insure that the next of kin received notification in person of the tragedy and to select Casualty Assistance Officers (CAOs). These officers ere responsible for assuring that the crash victims’ next of kin received all appropriate services and entitlements. To assist the CAOs, CMAOC established and manned a telephone hot line with CAOs could call for information on financial matters, housing, transportation, and other issues related to the needs of victims’ families. CMAOC also helped to arrange three training sessions for the 284 CAOs appointed for the Gander tragedy. One training session was held at Fort Campbell on December 17 and the remaining two were taught at Fort Belvoir, VA on December 18 and 19.
One of the most effective ad hoc organizations formed to meet the human needs posed by the Gander disaster was the Family Support Center at Fort Campbell, KY. The families of some sixty-nine of the crash victims either lived on post or close by, and Fort Campbell would be hard pressed to meet their needs. Shortly after 0700 (CST) the post received news of the tragedy. Immediately, the Chief of Staff of the 101st Airborne Division called together representatives form all staff agencies, major unit commands and separate battalions to coordinate Fort Campbell’s response to the tragedy. Without delay, the Public Affairs Office opened a Press Center where family members could come for information, consolation and support. By noon on the day of the tragedy the center was fully operational in a centrally located, dedicated facility which contained a large open work area, adjoining private rooms, rest rooms, and equipped kitchen, cable TV, multiple phone lines, and controlled access.
Within the Family Support Center, family members of the crash victims who resided in the Fort Campbell area could find the assistance they needed to file for benefits, arrange quarters turn-in or extension, obtain transportation, arrange for disposition of remains, seek grief counseling, and apply for loans or grants. Staffing came from local resources and volunteers from XVIII Airborne Corps an d Fort Knox. Other Army and civilian agencies represented included Army Community Service, the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, the American Red Cross, Army Emergency Relief and Army Mutual Aid.
Fort Campbell established a separate center to support families visiting the installation for the post memorial services honoring the victims of the Gander crash, which was held on December 16. Services provided at this time included transportation, lodging and meals, and filing and payment of vouchers for travel done under invitational travel orders.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) conducted initial recovery operations at the crash site. In organizing their search, the Mounties mapped out the crash site into an area 350 meters long by 50 meters wide. Within the charted area, they staked-out 10-by10 and 10-by-30 meter grids, which were numbered. This permitted the labeling of each body, remain wreckage part and other items removed by grid number and greatly aided the identification process.
After one day of recovery operations, workers had discovered about 125 bodies and moved 100 dead to a hanger at Gander International Airport, pressed into service as a temporary morgue. On December 15 the RCMP announced that all remains were believed to have been moved from the crash site and that they would conduct a final sweep of the site to certify that everything had been uncovered. A six-inch snow which blanketed the crash site area hampered the final search. Although the Mounties still thought that they had recovered all remains, Major General Crosby, the senior US Army representative at Gander, and Canadian officials agreed on December 18 not to close the crash site until Canadian and US pathologists at the Dover mortuary jointly agreed that an adequate inventory of remains to complete the identification process had been retrieved.
US support during the initial stage of recovery operations was minimal. The RCMP performed all recovery work and did not permit the graves registration personnel sent to Gander on December 12 on the crash site. Following the signing of the US Canadian Memorandum of Understanding on December 14, graves registration personnel assisted the RCMP by tagging and inventorying tall remains, placing the remains in remains pouches and transfer cases, and helping to process personal effects and military equipment, all under the strict supervision of the Mounties. AFIP personnel on the Gander Response Team, in addition to advising Canadian and US Army officials and assisting in developing the Memorandum of Understanding, visited the crash site to examine and photograph the wreckage, and document ground gouges, tree strikes and burn patterns.
By December 22, all autopsies of the collected remains had been completed. A review of the autopsies and the large number of unidentified remains on hand convinced Canadian and US pathologists at the Dover mortuary that at least two bodies had not been recovered. Planning began immediately to reopen search and recovery operations and on December 28 a survey team headed by Major General Crosby, arrived at Gander to discuss with Canadian Aviation Safety Board and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officials the feasibility of resuming search operations
These discussions centered on four alternative courses of action. The first was to conduct a search of the site immediat3ely. A civilian contractor would be used to remove deb4rs, divert a stream running through the crash site and build structures to melt the snow off each grid. Army graves registration personnel would then conduct a detailed sift and search of each grid with the aid of the RCMP. The second alternative involved the same kind of search, but would defer it until after the spring thaw, thereby requiring less contractor support. Alternative three provided for a walk-through search immediately, while alternative four called for the immediate closing of the crash site without any further search and recovery operations.
The RCMP preferred alternative two, which had the advantage of reducing the possibility of damage to remains that the construction needed to implement alternative one might incur. Moreover better weather in the spring would enable searchers to fork faster and provide better results. But the disadvantages of this approach – the desire of family members of the crash victims for immediate action, the perception that the Army may not be taking timely action to alleviate the anguish of family members, an the likelihood of Congressional and media pressure – proved compelling, and the Canadians agreed t an early and extensive search (alternative one) which would begin early in January.
The second search and recovery effort at Gander was carried out primarily by 5 four-man teams composed of Army graves registration specialists from Fort Lee and Fort Bragg, who arrived at Gander on January 8, 1986. A sixth four-man team joined the effort on January 20. A Mounties supervised each team and he was responsible for recording what the team recovered. Before the search commenced, a contractor hired by the Canadians started constructing shelters of wood and plastic over the 350 by 50 meter site. The standard 10-by-10 meter size of the shelters sometimes varied due to the terrain configuration. Four to five 150,000 BTU propane jet heaters within the shelters melted the accumulated snow and ice. By January 11, the first shelter was ready for search. Three days later all four teams were hard at work. The addition of the sixth team on January 20 did not increase the number of specialists working the site at any one time, but did permit a rotation policy whereby each team received a day’s rest after four days of work.
As each shelter became ready for searching, a graves registration team divided the enclosed area into one meter wide lanes, with one specialist working each lane. The specialist conducted the search on his hands and knees, using brick mason trowels and garden tools to sift through the soil and ash.
Unusually warm weather enabled the graves registration teams to complete their arduous search of the crash site in only 26 days, less than one-half the time (60 days) the operation was expected to take. Their efforts proved successful. Two complete remains, over 300 anatomical portions, approximately 100 health records, four and one-half tones of personal effects and unit equipment and a hanger full of aircraft parts were uncovered during the second recovery mission, which was completed on February 3.
Following the conclusion of the second Gander search and recovery mission, the RCMP maintained security at the crash site until mid-May, when grading of the site was done, the site closed , and restoration of the site begun. During the four-day grading operation, which was completed on May 15, small pieces of aircraft, fragments of personal effects items, and four pieces of bone from a human skull were recovered. Master Sergeant Douglas L. Howard, who received the Meritorious Service Medal for his contributions to the Gander operations as Senior Operations NCO and Graves Registration Specialist, and who represented the Army at the official closing of the crash site, returned the personal items to summary court officials at Fort Campbell and forwarded the skull fragments to the port mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. In his trop report Sergeant Howard observed that additional crash related items may appear in the future as the soil percolates, abut that additional searching s not justified as “all that is possible to recover has been recovered.”
At the Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) was responsible for the identification of the human remains, pathology and autopsy examination, while the Air Force performed organic mortuary tasks (such as embalming, uniform preparation, and casketing) provided administrative support and prepared daily situation reports The US Army Escort Detachment at Dover handled arrangements for escorts and shipment of caskets to the bereaved families.
As each transfer case was brought into the mortuary it was weighed, placed on a gurney and tags with corresponding reference numbers were attached to the transfer case, body bag, and remains. A volunteer with a packet of blank medical forms then accompanied the remains through the processing stations, assuring that post-mortem medical and dental records stayed with the remains and that the remains were not misplaced or neglected. The remains and personal effects were photographed and the latter were transferred to another area for processing. Next, the remains were fingerprinted by an FBI team, given medical x-rays, surgical jaw resections, dental x-rays, and dental post-mortem examinations. Finally an autopsy was performed and a toxicology determination made.
Following the autopsy, a thorough examination of the ante-mortem and post-mortem records was made. If there was sufficient evidence to establish a positive identification, the remains were embalmed, casketed and prepared for shipment. Unidentified remains or incomplete remains were returned to refrigerated semi-trailers for additional processing.
The loss of personal health records (medical and dental), which most of the crash victims carried with them on the flight, severely hampered the identification process. Searchers recovered about 200 health record documents associated 3with 142 of the victims at the crash site. Another 16 medical records and 26 dental records were at Fort Campbell and the Sinai. An extensive effort to reconstitute the health records destroyed in the crash began on the day of the tragedy. Army medical and dental activities around the world searched their files to locate information on the Gander victims. By the end of the year medical records on 241 of the 248 Army casualties and dental records on 113 of the victims were available at Dover to aid the identification process. By the end of the identification process, the Army had established medical records for all the soldiers lost in the crash and dental records for 80 percent of them.
The Army also sought the help of the families of the victims in providing information to help identify the remains. Initially, casualty assistance officers requested permission from about 150 families to contact civilian doctors and dentists who had previously treated service members who had died at Gander. Then, as the need for more detailed information arose, the casualty assistance officers returned to the families for additional information. This approach, although it extended the anguish of the families, was essential to complete an accurate identification process. Information obtained included civilian dental records, medical records and x-rays, personal documents form which to lift latent fingerprints, birth certificates – which were used to obtain footprints, records of tattoos, distinctive jewelry, records of circumcision and photographs especially those showing teeth.
The success in reconstructing medical and dental records, the use of fingerprints obtained from the FBI, the Department of State, and Army sources, the results obtained from the second Gander search and recovery operation and additional evidence provided by grief stricken family members gave the AFIP pathologist at Dover the pre-mortem data they required to make positive identification on all the crash victims. They completed this task on February 22.
They based the vast majority of the identifications (226) on fingerprint and dental comparisons. Combinations of association of personal effects, anthropologic, medical, radiographic and dental comparisons, and facial reconstruction drawings identified twenty-two more crash victims. The eight remaining bodies, which lacked any type of identification presented a special problem.
Working groups in the identification areas of oral pathology, anthropology graves registration (personal effects), mortuary affairs, pathology, radiology photography, facial reconstruction, and fingerprints (FBI disaster squad), supported by working groups in automated data processing (FORECAST System) and medical records/repository (library), formed to sort and process the material returned to Dover as a result of the second Gander mission, zeroed in on the eight unresolved cases. Each of the groups studied the post-mortem data collected on the eight unidentified remains, including supplemental information supplied by co-workers and family members, all of which had been entered into the FORECAST microcomputer data base. Representatives form each group met as a cross functional identification team and developed an exclusion Matrix which was used successfully to identify the last eight remains. The matrix incorporated medical, dental and radiographic exclusions and exclusions based on anthropological data, such as race, age, height and build.
Once the identification process for one set of remains was completed, embalming, casketing, and administrative paperwork were accomplished, and the primary next of kin (PNOK) was notified so that burial arrangements could be made. The Dover mortuary’s administrative section began the notification chain by informing the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center (CMAOC) that a remains had been positively identified and was ready for burial. The CMAOC phoned th information to the appropriate Casualty Area Command (CAC), which in turn directed the Survival Assistance Officer to notify the PNOK and to obtain disposition instructions. The Survival Assistance office relayed these back to the CMAOC, which confirmed the information and passed it on to the US Army Escort Detachment at Dover. That unit coordinated all the arrangements for military escorts and the shipment of remains to the burial site designated by the PNOK.
Generally, disposition of remains went smoothly, although there were problems. In one instance the failure to confirm a social security number resulted in a SAO notifying a family that their son had been identified, when in fact the deceased was another soldier with the same last name. A more vexing problem was the fact that sixty-two of the crash victims had parents who were divorced, were themselves divorced or had fathered children out wedlock. These personal situations created difficulties in determining exactly who was the PNOK and therefore authorized to give disposition instructions. SAOs sometimes found themselves in the role of detective – tracking down divorce decrees, obtaining statements to support “loco parentis” and to substantiate relationships of children born out of wedlock, obtaining ages of divorced parents, and determining whether divorced fathers had abandoned the support of their families. Determining the PNOK in these situations would have been a much more serious problem, but for the delay in identifying the remains, which gave the SAOs time to investigate these personal labyrinths.
The transfer of remains from Dover to destinations designated by the PNOK began on December 26, when 27 caskets were shipped. A total of 85 remains were shipped in December, 54 in January, 101 in February, and 8 through March 18, when the last remains with accompanying escort left Dover.
Concurrent with the processing and identification of remains, Army graves registration personnel, primarily from Fort Bragg and Fort Lee, and later supported by addition graves registration and logistics personnel from Forts Carson, Hood, and Ord conducted the often tedious repetitious task of processing the personal effects and property recovered from the crash site. They documented all military items, such as radios and weapons, on DA Form 54, Record of Personal Effects Outside Combat Area, and relayed the information to the logistics office at Fort Campbell for property accountability. They subsequently shipped these items to Fort Campbell. DA Form 54s were also prepared for personal effects items. All associated personal effects were packaged separately. Graves registration personnel labeled all the boxes according to content, sealed them and shipped them to Fort Campbell, where they were signed over to summary court officer, who would arrange for the final disposition. Personal effects damaged by jet fuel, fire, or body fluids were recorded on Certificates of Destruction and destroyed. Shipment of the last boxes of personal effects on February 28, 1986 concluded the graves registration mission at Dover.
The labor-intensive and time-consuming manual effort required to prepare the case files, documentation, logs and accountability records in paper copy seriously hampered the personal effects processing operation at Dover. Also, the verbal reasoning and clerical skills required to perform the administrative position of the mission sometimes overtaxed graves registration specialists whose technical knowledge and training focused on handling human remains.
Army support for the survivors of the Gander crash victims emanated from several centers – Headquarters Department of the Army; the US Army Military Personnel Center; the US Army Community and Family Support Center; Fort Campbell’s Family Assistance Center; and the Casualty Area Commands, where the assistance officers assigned to each family were located.
At Headquarters, Department of the Army level, family matters were of particular concern to ODCSPER’s Human Relations Directorate, which had a 2-member representation in the Army Operation Center’s Personnel Contingency Cell, and to the OCCSPER’s two field operating agencies located a short distance away from the Pentagon in Alexandria, Virginia, the US Army Military Personnel Center and US Army Community and Family Support Center. Family support initiatives at this level concentrated on changing laws and regulations to meet family needs and expediting services and benefits which might otherwise be delayed by bureaucratic red tape. Laws were changed to increase Servicemen Group Life Insurance (SGLI) benefits from $35,000 to $50,000 (retroactive to December 12 so that the crash victims were covered) to permit families residing in military quarters to remain there for 90 days; and to grant a 90-day quarters allowance to families who were not living in military housing. Government funded travel was authorized for family members who wished to attend memorial services at Fort Campbell on December 20, and for travel to burial sites. Also, family members attending schools on military posts were allowed to continue their studies until the end of the school year, all pay and allowance settlements were expedited, and awards and decorations due each soldier were developed into special “shadow boxes” for presentation to the next of kin.
At the local level the efforts of Family service and Assistance Officers/Survivor Assistance Officers (FSAO/SAO) and the staff servicing the Fort Campbell Family Assistance Center who worked directly with the bereaved families complemented policy decisions made in Washington to ease the burden of crash victim survivors.
The Family Service and Assistance Officer was responsible for personally notifying the next of kin of the crash and keeping the person informed of developments at Gander. Once the Army confirmed that the family member was aboard the ill-fated flight, the FSAP became the Survival Assistance Officer (Casualty Assistance Officer). The SAO or CAO took on the responsibility for assisting the next of kin in obtaining the benefits and services he or she was entitled to, both from the Army and from civilian agencies. In an exceptional move, Legal Assistance Officers were appointed to provide appropriate legal advice to the primary next of kin and to the SAO.
In addition to their responsibilities toward the families of the crash victims, SAOs served as the intermediary between the Army and the families in obtaining the information needed from the latter for identifying the remains at Dover.
The inconvenience to the next of kin in applying for benefits at a number of civilian and military agencies, which might well be located at widely dispersed points even with the help of their SAO, was greatly alleviated at Fort Campbell, where the Family Assistance Center provided a single source of expertise and assistance. There the next of kin could file for all benefits, arrange quarters turn-in or extension, transportation, loans or grants, obtain grief counseling, an =d arrange for disposition of remains. Fort Campbell’s quick and effective response in meeting the human needs resulting from the Gander tragedy was the fruition of actions begun in 1984 with the establishment of a Casualty Working Group to coordinate installation and community activities associated with casualty reporting and related matters. Fort Campbell’s action as part of an Army-wide effort to revamp casualty and memorial affairs activities in light of the Grenada experience and the bombing of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon.
The Canadian Air Safety Board’s (CASB) extensive investigation of the crash of Arrow flight 1285 in not expected to be completed until early 1987. Preliminary finding indicate that the crash was likely caused by the unfortunate confluence of a number of factors, no one of which would have been sufficient to bring the plane down. These include icing on the wings, mechanical problems and crew fatigue. Overweight conditions in the passenger compartment due to the large amount of carry-on luggage may also be a factor. Passenger and carry-on luggage weight was not determined prior to take-off at Cairo, but the Arrow flight crew had estimated that the average weight per passenger, including carry-on luggage was 170 pounds. CASB calculations indicated that the average weight per passenger with carry-on luggage was at least 220 pounds.
The implication to safety of the wide variance between estimated and actual passenger weights led the NTSB to recommend, in February 1986, that the Department of Defense:
“Develop a standard procedure and form for determining an d documenting the actual weights of passengers, baggage, and cargo for the purpose of recording and conveying such weights to the flight crews of commercial contract carriers of military personnel.”
Prompted by the NTSB recommendation, the Military Airlift Command issued interim weight criteria guidance for charter flights. A “DOD Passenger Airline Policies Review” issued in April 1986 confirmed the MAC action and proposed strong corrective measures for charter procedures employed by DOD, improved communications between DOD and agencies responsible for aviation safety, and additional resources for the FAA so that it could carry out more effectively its oversight of air carriers.
The Army’s response to the Gander tragedy and the loss of 248 of its own was characterized by a firm resolve to honor fallen comrades and to minister to the needs of their bereaved families. In both respects the Army, aided by the willing support of its sister services, succeeded remarkably well. Of particular note was the effectiveness of the first Gander mission in establishing food rapport with Canadian authorities, thus assuring the early return of remains to US soil and laying the groundwork for a successful return to Gander to complete recovery operations; the accomplishment of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology team at Dover, who worked under conditions that were often trying and frustrating; the ability of the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center in handling the round-the-clock requirements thrust upon it; the innovations of the Fort Campbell Family Support Center in meeting the needs of the victims families and the diligence, professionalism and compassion exhibited by the Casualty Assistance Officers.
Of course, there were problems as well. Deficiencies in personnel for overseas replacement procedures resulted in the lose of health records, which were carried on the ill-fated flight contrary to Army regulations. The records had to be reconstituted, causing a delay in the identification process and additional anguish among the families of the deceased, some of whom were repeatedly called upon for information to aid the identification effort. Inaccuracies in the Emergency Data Forms of the victims resulted in delays in notifying the next of kin and in other problems. Incompatible automated data processing systems delayed the timely transmission of data needed to support the identification process.
But in spite of these and other problems, the Army met the Gander tragedy with extraordinary caring and sensitivity. The words of former Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall seem appropriate:
There is no more effective way of creating bitter enemies for the Army than by failing to do everything we can possibly do at a time of bereavement. Nor is there a more effective way of making friends for the Army than by showing we are personally interested in every fatality which occurs.
This after action report was compiled in 1986 by the individuals directly involved with the activities described. The investigations into the crash were concluded in 1987 with a majority opinion offered by the team that the crash was a result of icing on the wings and severe overloading. Click here to download this story as a MS Word 97 file.