The following is an excerpt from my journal.
August 29, 1988 – Landstuhl, Germany
I’ve seen plenty of dead people during my tour with the Army’s 10th Medical Laboratory, but yesterday I finally tiptoed on the edge of insanity as I bore witness to the worst disaster imaginable. I am sure Flugtag ‘88 will be remembered by those who witnessed it as a day we’d all rather forget, but there’s no way we can. All I know is that I came to admire hundreds of nameless people as heroes today, because out of this madness emerged the kind of human spirit that defines the best in us.
Last May I participated in the recovery and identification of the sailors who were killed in the USS Stark incident, so I know and understand the horrific nature of death on a large scale. However, yesterday I witnessed death and pain and suffering on a scale that left me cowering in my barracks room after I got off duty. I wept openly for the first time since I was a child, and the only reason I was able to sleep was because I’d popped three 2-milligram doses of Ativan.
I witnessed the disaster’s aftermath from so different perspectives because my commander, Colonel Vladimir Jarotzky—known as COL J to his admirers and Vlad the Terrible to his detractors—asked me to be his driver after we mustered as many people from our unit as we could to support the disaster relief. COL J more or less defined his own leadership role that day, and he proved to be invaluable in about fifty different ways amid the disaster relief, and luckily—or unluckily, depending upon one’s perspective—he dragged me along for the whole experience.
COL J and I recently bonded because his son, Max, died of brain cancer at the very same time this summer as I was hospitalized with a severe leg injury. Before Max died, I hobbled on crutches to the ICU every day to visit him while he lay dying. Max was a good friend who interned as a Histology technician in my department in 1987 before he fell ill. His death devastated me as well as many of my comrades in the 10th Med Lab who’d gotten to know Max. He was a sweet and gentle little dude with a wicked sense of humor, and he would have made a great soldier—like his father and his brother Alex, who was a cadet at West Point—had he not been afflicted with brain tumors since he was a child. My father died of the same type of illness as Max, and being there for him during his last days brought me tremendous closure for the pain I still felt for my father’s loss.
COL J was like a whirlwind yesterday. Not only is he a brilliant pathologist and the commander of the 10th Med Lab and all its subordinate units, but he can also speak several languages, which made him useful yesterday because the victims were mostly German civilians and the Italian pilots who survived the wreck. So COL J acted as a medical advisor, senior military commander, and translator wherever he went. One of the Italian Air Force pilots, badly burned, held COL J’s hand in the ICU unit at the 2nd G and begged forgiveness for what he and his comrades had done. COL J, a devout Russian Orthodox, chanted a prayer in Russian and told the pilot, in Italian, that all was forgiven. That’s the kind of day it was for COL J.
The real heroes were the common folks on the scene at Ramstein Air Base and at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When I say everyone helped, I mean everyone helped, whether comforting victims, cleaning up the wreckage to get to casualties, saving lives, or merely donating blood. Even amid the most awful disaster any of us have ever witnessed, people from all walks of life banded together and did magnificent and heroic deeds. The Air Fore medics and firemen were insanely brave and all deserve the highest medals awarded.
I remember driving COL J to the 655th Blood Bank, a unit under his command, and seeing the thousands—thousands!—of people waiting to donate blood. People wept when they were turned away because there weren’t enough blood bags for all the donors. Of course, because I am blood type O NEG—the universal donor blood type—COL J made me donate a pint while we lent a hand to our friends and colleagues in the 655th.
Every person I know from the Landstuhl-Ramstein area—military or civilian, American or German—has a story to tell about yesterday’s events, and the small part he or she played in the relief effort. Everyone is in a fugue state and grieving over the dead and wounded, many of whom were burned horribly from the jet fuel that overwhelmed the crowd with the fury of a hurricane made of fire. The confusion and hysteria at the crash site was immense, yet those brave Air Force firemen and off duty soldiers, airmen, and civilians attending the air show risked life and limb to save hundreds of lives. All the preparing we’d all done for World War III paid off during this disaster. Despite the confusion and anguish, leaders emerged everywhere—like my beloved commander, COL J—who made things run as smoothly as could be expected. Amid this horrible tragedy, people performed brilliantly under great duress and I am as proud of humanity as I have ever been. Since many of the heroes are friends and colleagues of mine, I feel a surge of pride to be a member of such an excellent organization as the US Army. Today we earned our pay.
I’m exhausted and a little freaked out, but I imagine families in Germany and America are feeling worse as they learn the fate of their loved ones who were the victims of yesterday’s disaster. It would be easy to place blame on the US Air Force for having such daring stunts performed over a massive crowd like at Flugtag, and I am sure heads will roll in the upcoming weeks, but for now my friends and I are too tired, too saddened, and too burned out to give a damn.
During the Stark incident last May, I figured nothing would ever affect me as badly as that horrific tragedy. I was wrong; August 28, 1988 was the worst day of my life.