Nfld. & Labrador

Broken Arrow: debate continues after 20 years

Twenty years to the day, crews who had searched in vain for survivors of the Arrow Air crash came to a church in Gander Monday to remember those who perished in the worst aviation disaster in Canadian history.

Twenty years to the day, crews who had searched in vain for survivors of the Arrow Air crash came to a church in Gander Monday to remember those who perished in the worst aviation disaster in Canadian history.

In the early morning chill of Dec. 12, 1985, a chartered Arrow Air DC-8 crashed less than a minute after taking off from a refueling stop in Gander.

All 256 on board were killed, including 248 U.S. peacekeepers returning from duty in Egypt.

The disaster was remembered Monday in Gander, where police officers and firefighters on duty that day were among those who came to honour the dead.

The service, held at a Roman Catholic church in Gander, was filled with emotion.

In one moving moment, Maj. Alexander Conyers – who travelled from Virginia to pay his respects to his cousin and best friend from childhood, Greg Walker – thanked the people of Gander for honouring through the years the memory of those who died.

"It seems like yesterday. The hurt is still there," Conyers said. "The memories linger on, and we miss them and we love them."

Conyers joined a procession from the church through driving rain to the Silent Witness memorial, which was built on the site of the crash and features a statue of a peacekeeper holding the hands of two children.

"Even though it's been 20 years, he has not been forgotten," said Conyers, who laid a wreath in memory of the dead.

"It's a very emotional time," said Joe McGuire, who worked for the RCMP in Gander in 1985.

"You feel a lot for their parents and their wives and their husbands and their children, who'll never see them again."

Similar ceremonies were also held Monday in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the 101st Airborne Division was based. The troops had been heading home for a Christmas vacation.

Families not satisfied with explanation

The former Canadian Aviation Safety Board's official determination was that ice on the wings probably caused the disaster.

The official explanation has never sat well with families of the dead soldiers, nor with aviation experts – including dissenting CASB members.

In the years that followed, some evidence was disclosed, including autopsy reports which showed that soldiers had inhaled smoke in the moments before they died, indicating there had been a fire on board before the jet hit the ground.

Les Filotas was one of the four members who filed a minority report, and later wrote a book called Improbable Cause which suggested other causes – particularly an explosion – may have been responsible.

All these years later, however, Filotas – who is certain there was a coverup of evidence about the disaster – says his hope of another investigation has faded.

"I used to think so and hope so, but after 20 years nothing has changed," he said.

"So, I have to reluctantly believe that maybe it will be forgotten."

Family group has disbanded

Florida resident Zona Phillips – who helped found a group called Families For Truth About Gander – has also given up hope for learning more about what caused the Arrow Air disaster.

Her 23-year-old stepson, Sgt. Doug Phillips, died in the disaster.

The group was able to trigger a shortlived Congressional investigation in Washington, and had stoked media interest in the case in the early years following the disaster.

But the group disappeared as members died or were stricken with poor health.

The memories, though, have not.

"It's just there's never a Christmas that goes by that it doesn't hit you," Phillips said.

"It just hits you every year and it's like it was yesterday."

Unforgettable images: journalist

Among those who still have vivid memories of the disaster is Larry Hudson, a retired CBC journalist who was the only television reporter allowed on the crash site that morning.

Larry Hudson

Larry Hudson was the only television reporter at the scene of the Arrow Air disaster

Hudson remembers harrowing details of the crash scene as if they had happened yesterday.

"It was a cold morning, and the sickly smell of burning flesh and the smoke, and that terrible silence," Hudson recalls.

Shooting his own footage, Hudson, now 79, made a conscious decision about what he chose to shoot. He said he knew his footage would be seen worldwide within hours, and perhaps unedited.

"I didn't think that those faces, those bodies of those kids – and that's all they were, was kids … I didn't think their faces had any place on a television screen," he said.

On the internet, debate about the Arrow Air disaster continues on, with conspiracy theories given room to spread.

But talks of bombs and conspiracies do not sit well with some, including CASB employee Bill Tucker, who says all of the evidence and conjecture that points to anything other than the ice theory can be ruled out.

"There's absolutely no way anyone could objectively look at all the evidence from that investigation and come to a conclusion of anything being more likely than what that public report said," Tucker said.

However, a 1989 review by former Supreme Court of Canada judge Willard Estey ruled that the available evidence did not support ice on the wings as being a cause, let alone a probable cause, of the disaster.

Though resigned to not personally getting the answers she and others demanded for years, Zona Phillips is hopeful that more will one day be revealed.

"[The debate] will go on until infinity, or until someone comes up and talks about it," she said.