Haunting memories linger from Greenwood jet explosion
March 19, 1982, started out like many other mid-March days in Greenwood. But as the day unfolded, it proved to be anything but ordinary.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of a midair military jet explosion that happened over the small, rural area northeast of Woodstock.
About 9 p.m. March 19, 1982, an Air National Guard jet refueling tanker lost contact with ground control. The plane exploded midair at 9:11 p.m., and its flaming pieces rained over a 2-mile area near Greenwood. On board were more than two-dozen members of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard.
There were no survivors.
In all, 27 military personnel, including two women, were killed. Co-pilot Capt. Robert J. Nicosia of Algonquin was among the dead.
That night, amid roaring thunder and bright flashes of lightning, sleepy Greenwood was awakened by sights and sounds that were more than those of the evening’s storms.
Those affected by the tragedy carry haunting memories that linger today.
‘The calls kept coming’
Ray White was in his mid-20s and a volunteer firefighter in Wonder Lake. He was playing cards at the firehouse as a storm roared overhead.
“We heard a big crash, but thought it was thunder or lightning,” White recalls.
Then, his dispatch radio sounded, calling any available crews to the scene where an airplane had gone down.
White and his crew were closest to a swampy area near Wonder Lake where a piece of the fuselage still was burning when they arrived. Trucks were getting stuck in the mud. It was cold. It was pitch black.
“McHenry, Woodstock, Hebron [fire departments] all were responding,” said White, of Woodstock. “We had companies from both sides of Wonder Lake at that point. The calls just kept coming.”
In those chaotic first moments on the scene, crews didn’t know the magnitude of what they were up against.
“At one point, we found seven, eight, nine, 10 victims,” said White, who is now a battalion chief at the Lincolnwood Fire Department. “... The number kept climbing, and we didn’t know how many we were looking for. A lot of us had never seen anything like it before.”
‘I knew it wasn’t a drill’
Longtime McHenry County Coroner Marlene Lantz first thought the crash was a drill. Her predecessor, Al Querhammer, was famous for them, she said.
As she was leaving, the then-deputy coroner heard a dispatcher’s voice over her radio.
“I heard the transmission come over, and I could hear terror in his voice, and I knew it wasn’t a drill,” Lantz said, getting choked up for a second before apologizing and continuing.
Her story was chilling. Lantz spoke of searching for bodies, identifying victims through dental records, being inundated by the press, setting up a makeshift morgue at the courthouse and the jail bunks that served as autopsy tables as the bodies came in. But there’s a softer side to the tale. Lantz still meets with the families of the victims at a memorial at Fort Sheridan.
And there is one story that stands out.
Charlotte Ratcliffe wrote Lantz, saying she couldn’t grasp that her son, Orval D. Jones, was dead. He was burned beyond recognition and had to be identified through dental records.
“She wrote and said I have to see my son,” Lantz said.
Lantz met the grieving mother and the two toured the crash site. As they walked through a large bean field, they came upon a circle of trees where Jones’ body was found. One side of a tree still was badly burned, but on the other side, buds started to sprout. The pair sat on a nearby log, admiring the tree – neither one speaking, each reflecting on how they were affected by the tragedy.
“It was like God saying life goes on. It was very ...,” Lantz said, taking a long pause. “It was quite an experience.”
‘On the front line’
“McHenry County’s worst air disaster” was written in large, bold black type on the front page of the Woodstock Daily Sentinel in the days after the explosion.
Kurt Begalka was a cub reporter with the Sentinel when he got word about the explosion. He responded to the scene and was met by competing news giants such as the Chicago Tribune and others.
“When you work at a small paper, it’s all hands on deck,” Begalka said.
It was his first big assignment, one for which he would win a prestigious The Associated Press breaking news award.
“We didn’t go out there to win awards,” Begalka said. “We went out there to let people know what was going on.”
There was no Internet. No Twitter. No bloggers.
Begalka understood the magnitude of his task.
“There wasn’t instant information like there is today,” Begalka said. “People didn’t know anything without getting it from us. Now it would be instant. Someone would be tweeting. Someone would be blogging. We were on the front line.”
Out of the carnage and chaos, Begalka and the Sentinel staff had to put together all the pieces, and through the grim story came one of hope.
Begalka remembers neighbors helping neighbors, and how the small community came together to help in any way they could. Oftentimes that meant simply a warm drink or food for the rescuers. Begalka, a journalism veteran, now is editor of the McHenry County Business Journal.
‘Day changed everything’
Angela Dixon was almost 3 years old when her father, William S. Dixon, was killed on the doomed jet. She doesn’t remember much about her father, but her family members keep his memory alive through telling stories about him.
William Dixon was smart, Angela Dixon said. He was valedictorian of his high school and top of his graduating class at University of Michigan. Patient and kind. Measured and sweet.
“I didn’t grow up with my father,” Angela Dixon said. “He died thinking he was going to do some routine flight. That one day changed everything.”
Oddly prophetic, William Dixon had a bad dream the night before. His wife, Van Pend Dixon, tried to persuade him not to go to work, but he never missed a day.
“He just felt funny that morning,” Angela Dixon said. “And I guess I was crying relentlessly, just hysterical, for no reason. All I know is I was crying because I didn’t want him to go.”
William Dixon also told his wife things to remind his baby girl. Such as things Angela should know – in case anything ever happened to him.
“He said things like, ‘Tell Angela education is so important, and make sure my daughter is never in a beauty pageant,’ ” Angela said.
Now married with her first child, and an elementary music teacher in Manhattan, Angela Dixon holds onto her father’s memory any way she can. She has kept his namesake, and even given his last name to her daughter, 2-month-old Luna Devorah Dixon.
‘We all had tears’
John Johnson of McHenry knew something wasn’t right. An airman for 31 years, Johnson can recognize the sound of a military airplane. He thought it was flying too low. Then he saw the flash.
A short time later, Johnson said, he heard the news that a military airplane had exploded nearby. But he could breathe a sigh of relief because it was a KC-135 jet, and he believed he didn’t know anyone who flew those.
He was wrong.
The jet initially was supposed to carry four crew members from the 126th Air Refueling Wing of the Illinois National Guard, but picked up 23 passengers from the Air Force Reserve assigned to the 928th Tactical Airlift Group. Both were stationed at O’Hare.
The 23 passengers needed a lift back to O’Hare because their plane was having engine trouble.
Johnson recalled the memorial in their honor.
“The sad part I found with the whole thing was at the memorial,” Johnson said. “I don’t care how tough you are, we all had tears coming down.”
‘It became personal’
Matthew Marsh was a 12-year-old living in Woodstock when the crash happened.
He remembers it being the talk of the schoolyard 30 years ago.
It wasn’t until 10 years later when Marsh took a deep interest in the incident. He did extensive research on the crash, including poring over Lantz’s documents and Air Force investigation reports.
“As I started researching it and seeing what they had in their pockets, and pictures of the horror, it started to put a face to these people,” said Marsh, now of LaGrange. “It became personal.”
Marsh called the Air Force investigation inconclusive. The official investigation report said the jet’s tail blew off as a result of “extreme overpressurization of the fuselage” and broke apart in the air.
Or, as Marsh says: “That’s just a fancy way of saying it exploded.”
Marsh isn’t convinced. He pointed to an improperly installed VHF antenna on the plane’s belly as opposed to the top of the plane, as it should have been. Also a fuel leak that was repaired only weeks before the crash and faulty wiring that was found among the wreckage. This was documented in reports provided by Marsh.
Lightning was the leading theory at the time, but military officials at the time dismissed it.
Marsh thought lightning struck the plane, resulting in a charge that ran through the VHF antenna, causing the remnants from the fuel leak to ignite. That theory has not been proved.
For those affected by the crash, both directly and indirectly, it’s important, he said, on days like today never to forget what happened that March night.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to the husbands, wives and children,” Marsh said. “It was not expected. They were not in an active war. It’s easy to forget the military not killed in the battlefield.”