20 years since Pope Air Force Base tragedy

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March 24, 2014 3:20:35 PM PDT
On Monday, the 82nd Airborne Division marked the 20th anniversary of an accident at the former Pope Air Force Base that killed 24 Army paratroopers.

March 23, 1994, an F-16D Falcon fighter jet collided with a C-130 Hercules transport plane while both were trying to land at the base. The fighter slid into a parked C-141 Starlifter cargo plane and both aircraft exploded in flames.

The fireball claimed the lives of 24 paratroopers staging for airborne operations at the base's Green Ramp area, and more than 80 others were hurt.

It was the largest loss of life for the Division in peacetime since the end of World War II.

"As a community, we grieved for those who were killed and wounded during the tragic accident at Green Ramp. Now, as a community, we are remembering and honoring the Paratroopers who lost their lives and those who suffered severe injuries on that day," said Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Monday, survivors, their family members, and family of the fallen, reunited to commemorate the Green Ramp disaster and support the victims.

The worst surviving burn victim was Sgt. Michael Kelley - who had more than 70 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. He and his wife had just arrived at Ft. Bragg for their second tour 6 weeks before the accident.

She found out about the crash in a TV news bulletin and immediately had to pack bags to head out to Fort Sam Houston. When she arrived at the burn unit, she didn't recognize her husband.

"It was like all these glass windows. I saw this one soldier at the very end and I felt so bad for his family because he looked in such poor shape. I mean he really did, and that was my soldier. So it was very hard at the time to see your soldier be the one you felt sorry for that day," said Lisa Kelly.

Sgt. Kelley was given a 30 percent chance to live, and slim to no chance of walking again. But he survived. He walks. And last week, he retired from a second career with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Pope Air Force Base has since been renamed Pope Army Airfield when it merged with Fort Bragg in 2011.

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