Survivor remembers plane disaster at Pope Air Force Base 21 years ago

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Monday marked the 21st anniversary of an accident at the former Pope Air Force Base that killed 24 Army paratroopers.

It was literally hell on earth. That's how survivors 21 years ago described a plane crash and fireball that killed 24 82nd Airborne soldiers.

Lt. Col. Judson "Jay" Nelson remembers the crash like it was yesterday.

"My most vivid memory is young soldiers trying to put out their buddies, pouring canteens of water on them because the petroleum flashed up while they were burning and they did not even know it," said Nelson.

Nelson was a platoon leader in March 1994. He and hundreds of other troops were on green ramp getting ready to board an Air Force C-141 for a parachute jump. A fighter jet and C-130 aircraft collided mid-air over Pope. The jet then slammed into another plane on the ground and sent a fireball of burning jet fuel thru a line of waiting soldiers.

"I could hear the aircraft as it hit the ground, and scraped across about 350 feet of the tarmac, then hit the C-141 and blew up, and then a fireball swept over me the whole world turned orange, and it sucked the air right out of me and I blacked out," recalled Nelson.

In that instant, 24 soldiers lay dead or dying. More than 100 others were hurt.

Nelson said he awoke to find himself on fire, and ammunitions rounds were going off in the inferno. Badly burned, Nelson said he knows the hand of God was on him.

"In the middle of my back, there is a spot that is not burned," he said. "My Mother called that God's thumb print just holding me down."

A few days after the crash, then President Bill Clinton toured the crash site, and met with survivors and families.

Nelson had burns over 60 percent of his body. He underwent extensive physical therapy and returned to active duty. He said the 21st anniversary of that day passed on Fort Bragg with no fanfare and no memorials -- just conversations between survivors.

It was a tragedy that touched the hearts of Americans around the world and turned young soldiers into heroes.

"We lost good men and, if you get the chance, tell the people you love, you love them, and remember the folks we lost and their families and say a prayer for them," said Nelson.

The crash remains one of the worst peacetime training accidents in history.

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