Have you ever experienced something personally that was also being played out nationally? I know the events of 9/11 affected people globally and many had personal knowledge of someone touched on a private level. With that being said and the sixth anniversary of 9/11 happening earlier this week, I want to tell you what happened September 13, 1997. It was a couple of weeks after Princess Diana had died and a week after Mother Teresa. Death comes in three’s and I remember telling Mama that I wondered who the third would be since I always adored both of those women. Mama sternly warned me against asking such a question because you will find an answer you really do not like whatsoever. She’s always right and this time it was no different.
It was a Saturday and my ex-husband and I had spent the day at his company picnic in Greensboro, North Carolina. We came home and I casually checked the answering machine. The message from my ex-father-in-law was muddled and confusing and he sounded drunk. Without missing a beat I dialed them in Virginia. What my ex-mother-in-law said to me was in a whisper and I could tell something was really wrong… What she quietly said was “turn on CNN”.
I made my way to the TV and turned it on. Flipping channels, I finally landed on CNN. After a few minutes there was a story on about an Air Force C-141 that had not returned to its McGuire, NJ base from a humanitarian mission to Windhoek, Namibia delivering land mine removal equipment. There were photos of those who were missing. The second one was identical to the photo on the table right beside me. I tapped the ex on the shoulder and then pointed. We quickly called his parents again to get more information. All they told us this time was to get to their house as soon as we could.
We flung things into bags, jumped in the car and drove. Fervent phone calls were made to both of our bosses. His boss was understanding. Mine, not so much. I was told be at work on Monday or you do not have a job. I told her to turn on CNN because according to all counts I probably had a death in the family. Although they were less than 100 miles away, I could have sworn the drive took hours.
Finally upon arriving we were greeted by an Air Force officer. He sat us down and explained that Jason’s plane was missing. The last known account had been when they refueled on the Island of Ascension. Ironically Jason had called us while he was there as I was cooking dinner the evening before. My ex was not available so I was the last member of the family to have contact with him that fateful day.
The family gave me the task of making certain the small town (my former in laws truly live on Main Street) was covered with yellow ribbons in hopes that he would come back to us. They literally blanketed the town. Everyone knew my former in-laws as he was a principal at the only high school as well as one of the assistant football coaches. We even tied one around Sally, Jason’s golden retriever. She was his gift when he graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in May of 1992. The first media regarding Jason was a photo of that dog along with the rest of us. At that point I was also the family appointed media POC for all things regarding Jason.
Hours became days, days became weeks. The search was no longer considered a rescue mission. It was, at best, a recovery mission. However, it was the Atlantic they were searching for a sign, any little sign of wreckage. The sea can be very unforgiving. Air traffic control in that part of the world is sketchy at best. Hope was fading fast that there would be anything found at all.
There was the first of five services held. The first was at McGuire AFB. If you have not experienced a military service on a base you really are missing something filled with rich tradition, honor and haunting beauty. The flyover for that service was heart wrenching as nine C-141’s (one for each soul lost) flew by. The second service was Jason’s home town memorial held a couple of weeks later. It was held in the largest venue available in town, the high school auditorium which was filled to capacity. We were fortunate that there was a flyover from McGuire for this service as well. With GPS technology they were flying directly over as we exited the building.
Fast forward to December 25, 1997. Over three months have passed since we were told to turn on CNN. They found the wreckage. They found the black box. Back in mid September, they found wreckage from another plane that was not US but was German in the area Jason’s plane should be but no sign of Jason’s. Apparently the same day Jason’s plane went down a plane filled with 24 German officers and their wives were heading to Capetown for a Regatta. Yes, they called on Christmas day to tell us this.
Answers, we demand answers. One wife wanted to review the remains. My former family declined but allowed her to view all as DNA testing was going on to determine who was who. Out of all that was found, DNA showed conclusively that this was Jason. Now we had something to bury. Maybe that would bring more closure or maybe it would reopen the scab that had formed over our wounded hearts.
Service three of five is held. A trunk is dropped over the wreckage site and a park is dedicated to the crew of the C-141 in Namibia. Service four of five is held. This time it is back in the sleepy hometown where we lay all of two pounds that were positively him to rest. Full military funeral with a 21 gun salute and another flyover. That was March of 1998… A full six months after his death. We did not attend service five of five at Arlington. Jason had earned the right to be buried there; however, the family wanted him at home. Arlington is where they laid to rest the remains both identified and unidentified.
The black box. It survived months in the ocean. It had a lot to tell us. Jason was a pilot; however, he had flown the initial mission so he was out of the cockpit when the events unfolded. There is chatting between the two in the cockpit. There is a mention of “Jason was right. There could be another plane out here and we would never know it”. A few minutes later they found out that Jason had indeed been a fortune-teller of the most devastating kind. The impact was quick and it was deafening. The calls for “Mayday” went unanswered. There was screaming, lots of screaming. It lasted over 30 seconds before there was complete and utter silence. I can not begin to imagine how long 30 seconds feels when you know in no uncertain terms that you are going to die.
What went wrong? Well the German Tupelov carrying the 24 officers and their wives had not filed a flight plan with African air traffic control. They were flying on the wrong altitude. Everyone was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the conditions were perfect for tragedy. The German plane exploded on impact and gutted Jason’s causing them to keep going that extra half a minute and moving them much further away from the German crash site. The Germans were found because part of their wreckage was floating whereas the massive hole in Jason’s plane caused it to sink. The odds of a mid-air plane collision occurring are astronomical. Say you and I went out and were ten football fields apart. At a precise moment we both shot a BB gun into the air and the BB’s collided. You get the picture.
When we cleaned out his belongings I was told to take what I wanted. All I opted for is what is in the photo below. It was a gift that I made for Jason as a present when he received his wings. What is even more touching is that on the back of it is the note that the ex and I wrote to him telling him how very proud we are.
So ten years later, I remember you. I still think of you often and fondly. You were like a little brother to me. God bless you Captain Jason Scott Ramsey and may you rest in peace.