We often memorialize the mass tragedies of US citizens, and for the most part, we do a good job of this in the USA. However, I had never seen a tribute to this particular accident, in the USA, but found it in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. The tragedy happened on December 12th, 1985 and it was an accident involving a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63CF aircraft, which killed all of the 256 people on-board. The memorial for this unfortunate event on this day is the “Silent Witness Memorial”. I wondered why Canada would call attention to this tragedy involving United States people, and it was later revealed (to me) that this accident was the largest death toll of any accident involving planes, in Canadian history, and it occurred right here, in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. As the details became available to me, I could see why Canadians feel a strong obligation to remember this tragedy. The government set up the Silent Witness Memorial, so they’ll always be reminded of what happened, they take it seriously, so just about everyone I talked to wanted to make sure that I got over to this location. I had not seen it officially listed as a “tourist attraction” (you’ll find it under “Historic Sites” though), and probably, rightfully so, considering that it’s not a touristy-fun type of thing, it holds sentimental value and is a black-eye to Gander, in a way. The plane involved in the accident was the Arrow Air Flight 1285, a jet which was to carry US Army personnel of the 101st Airborne Division. The plane was coming back west after completing a 6-month peacekeeping tour and had planned refueling stations, the last of which was in Gander, before heading back to the Fort Campbell, Kentucky, USA. The passengers disembarked, the plain was inspected supposedly, then it was re-boarded.
You might read this and wonder “why does anyone care about this?” Well, first, Canadians are very kind-hearted folks, for the most part, but the details that came out afterward just make you put your head down and shake it like “wow”. After the tragedy, investigators looked into the causes of the catastrophe and concluded that the plane was old make, made in 1969, leased out to the Arrow Air company. The age had to be factored into that, along with was ended up being a combination of things from the freezing rain forming into thick ice on top of the plane’s body and wings, to the plane not actually having been properly de-iced (if you will), prior to taking off. All of this lead to the problems with the craft’s inability to deal with high drag and improper liftoff. There is was also the matter of not taking into considering what was loaded on the plane, aside from humans, prior to takeoff. The plane was found to be over the recommended weight limit for this kind of craft, so that hadn’t been re-calculated prior to liftoff either. The plane took off, had its difficulties maintaining lift, flew extremely low, as it shot down hard like a dart, just about 900 feet away from takeoff. The other painful tidbit about this situation, the plane maybe could have landed in a big body of water, the Gander Lake, if it just had a bit more lift initially, but it was flying so low, the trajectory for a lake landing couldn’t happen. The plane started to come apart first, then the remains crashed into a building, exploded, ignited the fuel, and that blast killed all on-board. It was a pretty big oversight by those involved in preparing the plane, that’s why it’s a sore spot for Canadians. This peacekeeping group’s plane crashed just shy of a possible safe landing in a body of water, just before Christmas 1985. Put that in perspective, and think about how that would weigh on your soul, then you’ll understand why this memorial means a lot to Gander, and all who remember the event.
Two men came together to make this memorial come to life: the Canadian designer of the piece, Lorne Rostotski, and the American sculptor of the piece, Stephen Shields. This memorial is placed on and overlooks, the actual crash site of Arrow Air Flight 1285 just before the Gander Lake (see inset map up top). The area is a blocked off a portion of land that surrounded all by nature, with the memorial cradled tightly inside of that all natural plot of land where the tragedy occurred. This natural scenery IS what is referred to by the “Silent Witnesses” part of the name, I’d assume as in a poetic representation of the question “if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?”. The nature of the area witnessed the event up close. There are plaques and 3 staffs with Canadian, USA and Newfoundland and Labrador flags at full mast. The tribute’s main centerpiece is a set of statues of a soldier, accompanied by 2 children, on a slab of rock. The children proudly adorn the soldier, looking out towards the Gander Lake and to a brighter future, holding olive branches in their hands (symbolizing the peace efforts of the soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula). Gander takes plane situations very seriously, and every year, they also hold a memorial at the Gander Airport, as the airport served a place for planes to safely land, during the 9/11 attacks on the USA. R.I.P.