With his final gasps, the pilot repeated the same question, over and over.
“Did I miss the little town? Did I miss the little town?”
Ronald W. Bender was a 40-year-old U.S. Army pilot from New York. His co-pilot was Scott J. Temple, 43, of nearby Irving. They were at the controls of a twin-rotor Chinook CH-47D on a routine training flight from Fort Hood to Fort Sill, Okla., when it went down in flames in a pasture about two-and-a-half miles northeast of Chico.
There were 18 servicemen on board. The date was Thursday, Feb. 25, 1988.
Department of Public Safety Trooper Paul Geiser was administering first aid to Bender.
“He was burned extremely bad,” said Robert Rankin, DPS sergeant and incident commander at the scene. “When Paul started administering first aid, the pilot kept saying, ‘Did I miss your little town?’ He was talking about Chico. That was his concern.
“The man was extremely thirsty, so Paul went to get him a wet rag to moisten his lips, but by the time he returned the pilot had passed.”
Both Bender and Temple died at the scene after ensuring the Chinook missed homes, businesses, highways and people as it hurdled to earth. The pilots were two of the six servicemen who died at the scene. Four more died later at area hospitals, bringing the toll to 10.
Rankin was in Decatur when he first heard the call come over the scanner at 3:29 p.m. When he looked up toward Chico from the hilltop in town, he could see a plume of dark smoke curling and ballooning into the sky on an unusually warm late February afternoon.
“I knew immediately it was pretty serious,” Rankin said. “But I had no idea it was a military Chinook with 18 men on board.”
The fiery Chinook fell apart for miles in the sky as gravity pulled it into the pasture.
“About two miles to the east of Chico, I began to see pieces of the aircraft lying next to the roadway or out in a pasture,” Rankin said. “Then as I got to the scene I saw the carnage.”
Teenagers Dale Christopher, Johnny McDaniel and Brad Clampitt were some of the first to arrive. Some of the men were still alive, their bodies still on fire. The young men used their T-shirts to put them out. Christopher was so affected by what he saw he later joined the U.S. Marines.
“There were 18 people on board this Chinook,” Rankin said. “And when we got there, there were 18 live bodies. After we arrived and set up triage, we started losing them.
“That’s the hard part, when you start helping someone, and forming a relationship with them, and then they pass on. That’s what I remember most. It was tough.”
One of the soldiers on board was unhurt.
“‘How did you get away without injury?’” Rankin asked. “He said the fire started in the back, and the Chinook was filling up with smoke. The transmission had caught fire. As the fire spread, all those aboard started crowding toward the front.”
Even though the aircraft lost power, it continued with a lot of forward momentum. As he saw the ground coming toward him, the soldier was able to bail out about 30 feet up. He landed and rolled in a coastal field without injury.
“One or two had jumped out right before it hit,” said Galen Wiley, a Chico Police Department officer at the time. “They weren’t even touched by fire. But those that rode it down … There was a catastrophic failure in the transmission system, and a fireball came through there.
“It’s a thousand wonders any of them survived. That pilot brought them down in an area, in a field, that wasn’t going to hurt anybody else, and he did it without it completely exploding. It could have been worse.”
SCENE OF WAR
Wiley was a young police officer. He’d just completed certification training about three years prior. He was 22 and working part-time, dividing his time between patrolling at night and helping at his family’s hardware store on the Chico Square.
“I was right here in this office when I heard it on the scanner,” Wiley said. “They dispatched all the first responders, anybody that was available. I jumped out into the white Blazer and started heading that way.
“You kind of prepare yourself mentally for what you are fixing to see, whether it is a car wreck or crime scene. And usually whatever you can imagine is worse than what you see. I’m thinking it was a news helicopter with maybe four people, at the most, on board. That was as far as my imagination went that day.
“But when I got out there I saw heavy smoke and olive drab across the pasture. I thought this ain’t right. I don’t even know if this is a helicopter. There’s not enough left to tell.”
Rankin said it was impossible to identify what kind of aircraft it was.
“There was one rather large piece of wreckage about 6 or 8 feet tall and smaller pieces scattered everywhere,” he recalled.
“I cut straight across the pasture,” Wiley said. “I was running over terraces. My adrenaline is pumping by now.
“I get there and bodies are everywhere. There were already a lot of other people there, but they weren’t first responders. It was just people that saw it go down and went to see what they could do. They were there to help.
“It was like a war scene out there. If you were a Vietnam veteran and went out there, you’d probably have a flashback because all the bodies everywhere. I’d never seen anything that graphic – ever – and I never have since.”
Many of the victims were horribly burned.
“I had latex gloves on and we were helping load survivors onto CareFlite,” Wiley said. “I remember thinking at the time that these guys just crashed on a helicopter, and now we’re putting them on another one.
“Everywhere you touched them, because they were charred, you had to make sure you only touched them in one spot, because wherever you touched them was going to leave a break in the skin,” It was pretty rough.
“I can still see it if I close my eyes. One of them was looking at me, and we was charred black. And all I could see was the whites of his eyes. That still haunts me. It’s like his eyes were crying out ‘help me,’ and you knew he wasn’t going to last much longer.
“I did not have myself mentally prepared for what I was going to see. You can’t prepare yourself for the smell. It is a horrific smell. One of the worst smells there is is human hair burning.”
Paul Arrington Jr., 72, worked for Chico Auto Parts at that time. Their wrecker trucks played a vital role that day. Though the accident occurred on a clear warm day, the ground was thick and muddy from winter rains. As emergency vehicles moved through the fields, fighting the grass fires and getting to the injured, tires got mired in the muck again and again.
“I just happened to be standing in the door when the helicopter flew by,” Arrington said. “And I saw something the size of a barrel fall off of it. I knew something wasn’t right. Then boom! It went down. The fire trucks went out, and they were getting stuck. So we had to go out there and pull them out to keep things moving.”
Grass fires were breaking out across the pasture, located off County Road 1560.
“I never saw anything like that before or since, and I hope not to ever see anything like it again,” Arrington said.
HELPING THE HELPERS
Most of those who responded that day, from veteran first responders to rookie officers, had never witnessed such a loss of life or such grisly injuries. But at the time, counseling programs for first responders was rare. Most had to deal with it on their own.
“I did real good for a while,” Wiley said. “It’s funny how catastrophes affect people differently. Most first responders have different ways of dealing with what they see. I remember thinking I was macho. They had a debriefing for first responders if they wanted any counseling, to talk about it. I remember thinking, ‘We don’t need that. We’re tough.’
“Then on the third day it hit me. I’m out there in the back patio of my house and I’m crying like a baby. I’m still like that today. I’m fine until the third day. Then I unload.”
Rankin said sometimes it helps to isolate yourself from it.
“You realize it’s happening to someone else and not you or one of your loved ones,” he said. “That isolation kind of helps you move on. Even though you feel sorrow for those involved, too much of that sorrow will get a hold of you. So you kind of isolate yourself from all the pain and loss and carnage. But that was the most loss of life I’ve experienced at one time.
“After that incident, it was so massive that one of the local churches offered counseling for all the men and women involved. I remember neither me nor any of my troopers attended. We just talked it over amongst ourselves. It’s unfortunate we didn’t attend. We probably should have.
“It was a massive scene, and we all had to deal with it. As emergency response has improved, counseling has become more mandatory. A lot of us didn’t get it like we should have. But we dealt with it in our own way.”
Times have changed. It’s common now for first responders to go through some type of counseling or time off after dealing with certain situations.
“We used to never bring in counselors, now we do every time,” said Doug Whitehead. Now chief deputy with Wise County Sheriff’s Office, Whitehead was Chico’s police chief when the Chinook crashed.
“We now have what I call a cathartic dumping, you just lay everything out there,” he said. “Then the counselor decides if someone is having serious issues and needs more counseling. Others just need to go through a debriefing, and they’re ready to get back out there.”
In the late 1990s, it became a lot more common to bring in counselors.
“It’s the same in law enforcement now like it is in schools,” Whitehead said. “Counselors are brought in. Back then you just dealt with it. We never thought about it. There was a transition, finding that it would be necessary for some officers. Some are OK, but others are going to have trouble handling it.
“We all deal with it in different ways. You may have trouble sleeping at night after. I might start having increased arguments with my wife or falling off in my job and duties because my mind is preoccupied. These events that we attend or investigate, they do have an affect on you.
“It’s something every first responder has to deal with.”
COMFORT IN COOPERATION
The Wise County tradition of agencies working together is something that can give comfort when a crisis strikes, even one as overwhelming as the Chinook crash of 1988.
Rankin was a DPS officer for almost 29 years. He joined in 1972, and right out of recruit school he was stationed at Decatur. He worked there eight years, then was promoted to supervisor in 1981 and stationed in Laredo. He transferred back to Decatur in 1983 in a supervisor position and remained there until 2001.
“A special thing about Wise County, and I recognized this when I left and went to Laredo, was the working relationship that all the agencies, all the first responders, have,” he said. “When we arrived, we worked together as a unit and did what was best for those in need … It’s unbelievable how everyone would pitch in and did what needed to be done.”
“All the first responders who showed up were immediately tending to the injured, regardless of the fire or what kind of hazard it was,” he said. “Everybody jumped in and started helping the injured. Everybody was doing their job. I never even had to stand up and say I’m incident commander. Everybody knew what they had to do and did it.”
“We lived in a quiet community,” Whitehead said. “We never had much worse than car crashes. But we did the best we could.”
Whitehead received a plaque from the city of Chico for his efforts at the scene. Last Friday, for more than 30 years of service to the Wise County Sheriff’s Office, he received the Bo Wright Memorial “Riding for the Brand Award.”
FROM THE ASHES
For years after the crash Wiley continued to deal with those directly affected.
“I used to take survivors … out there,” he said. “Parents and family from as far away as Pennsylvania would want to come and see the crash site. That’s a natural, human instinct. You want to see where it happened. You want some closure.
“Some wanted to make sure it wasn’t some government cover-up, and it actually happened like they were told. Every time I took one out there we’d find some debris. I bet you can still find some debris out there today.”
“One minute you’re flying in the air like that and then you’re dead,” Whitehead said. “These people never had a chance to say goodbye to those they loved. In a matter of seconds, you think about how many people that crash affected.”
Some of those the first responders saved have gone on to help others.
Capt. Calvin Turner was 30 when the aircraft went down. Following an extended hospital stay and rehabilitation, he medically retired from the Army with 11 years of active duty service. He went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Texas at Austin in 1995. He then founded a firm in Austin devoted to assisting U.S. military service members and veterans in financial management.
Due to the efforts of the two pilots, Turner and seven of his fellow officers were able to live out their lives.
And no one in the little town of Chico was hurt – anywhere except their hearts.
- Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth R. Simpson, 36, of Honey Grove
- Capt. Michael J. Monahan, 35, of Kingston, Pa.
- 1st Lt. Donald G. O’Quinn, 24, of Purvis, Miss.
- 1st Lt. Christopher D. Kurkowsky, 23, of Miles City, Mont.
- 1st Lt. Charles P. Moses, 24, of Dallas
- 1st Lt. Lynn Dial, 31, of Iowa
- 1st Lt. Wayne Locklin, 24, of Parlin, N.J.
- Staff Sgt. Raymond T. Hill, 31, of Michigan
- CW 4 Ronald W. Bender, 40, pilot, of New York
- CW 4 Scott J. Temple, 43, of Irving
- Staff Sgt. Paul Stroud, 26, of Fort Worth
- Staff Sgt. Rafael Adame, 27, of San Antonio
- Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Cook, 36, of Jacksonville
- 1st Lt. Steven L. Casteel, 26, of Arkansas
- 1st Lt. Richard Fields, 25, of Clementon, N.J.
- Capt. Calvin Turner, 30, of Killeen
- Sgt. 1st Class Frank A. Prather, 32, Daytona Beach, Fla.
- Spec. 4 Paul L. Patricio, 20, of Seattle, Wash.