FORT WAINWRIGHT — At about 9 p.m. on a Sunday just more than 30 years ago, a Canadian C-130 cargo plane crashed in front of the runway at Fort Wainwright, fatally injuring nine occupants and initiating a harrowing rescue operation in frigid conditions.
Service members from the United States and Canada came together Tuesday morning to mark the anniversary of the crash with stories, a 21-gun salute and the playing of American and Canadian memorial service bugle calls. The remembrance was also the starting event of the 2019 Extreme Cold Arctic Symposium, a combined U.S. and Canadian Army conference and trade show focused on operating military units in the extreme cold.
The Brim Frost ’89 war games were designed to test the cold weather skills of the U.S. armed forces and Canadian allies. With 26,000 service members, it was among the largest winter military exercises ever conducted in Alaska. It ended up being a particularly extreme cold weather test: A cold snap arrived during the exercise with temperatures averaging 50 below zero around much of mainland Alaska.
Over the course of the exercise, 280 cold weather injuries were reported, including 88 cases of frostbite, U.S. Army Alaska Deputy Chief of Staff Dusty Finley told an audience Tuesday at the Alert Holding Area warehouse on Fort Wainwright. Finley was an infantry officer stationed near Eielson Air Force Base during Brim Frost ’89. His unit dispatched a convoy of armored personnel carriers to pick up soldiers who were due on another plane and which happened to be the first responders after seeing the C-130 crash.
Finley described the confusing aftermath of the crash amid dense ice fog.
“The airfield operating control tower was unaware that the plane had actually crashed, nor was it aware of its location on the airfield until one of the Canadian soldiers walked over to a nearby barracks complex and calls were made to airfield ops,” he said.
The initiative of the soldiers and the medical staff who responded to the crash greatly prevented additional suffering, Finley said.
Mike Jorgensen was one of the nine Canadian service members who survived the crash. He returned to Fort Wainwright for Tuesday’s ceremony. In 1989, Jorgensen held the rank of captain. He had recently completed U.S. Army Ranger school and was excited to take part in the cold weather war games as a paratrooper when he boarded a C-130 in Edmonton, Alberta, on his way to Brim Frost. In all, the plane carried eight crew members and 10 paratroopers.
As the plane prepared to land at Ladd Field, Jorgensen said he and the other paratroopers in the cargo area suited up to practice an exercise that involved running out the back ramp of the plane to practice defending an area when they landed. Instead of landing, the plane hit a snowbank.
In the chaos of the crash, Jorgensen briefly lost consciousness. He remembers everything that happened when he woke up.
“I have all the memories seared in my head in great detail. The thing that kicked in of course was my training. I knew what I had to do. I had to either exit the aircraft at either the 10 o’clock or the 2 o’clock position,” he said. “And when I lay out there and those first responders almost landed on me as they jumped over the banks that had been plowed along the runway, I had also tucked my fingers underneath my arm pits to keep them from getting frostbite.”
Jorgensen stayed in the Army after spending a week at the hospital at Fort Wainwright and returning to Canada. He went on to reach the rank of brigadier general in the Canadian army and became director of army training. He’s now retired and lives in Ontario.
Jorgensen said Tuesday that he thinks about the crash that killed his soldiers and airmen every day. He’s reminded of it when he gets out of bed and puts weight on his right ankle, which was fractured in the crash. This week was Jorgensen’s first return to Fairbanks since 1989. During his visit, Jorgensen took a tour of the crash scene and met with several people here who helped in responding to the crash.
He told several stories at the ceremony about his medical care at Fort Wainwright. People here tried to make him feel welcome by bringing him souvenirs, knowing he wouldn’t have time to shop himself. They also found him a French-speaking soldier to keep him company, a well-meaning but completely unnecessary gesture because his first language is English. He found the way the medical staff said goodbye to be a particularly meaningful gesture: As he and the other wounded soldiers and airmen were discharged from the hospital, the entire medical staff lined the halls to see them out, he said.
“For me, the medical team at the Bassett Army Community Hospital here at Fort Wainwright was an amazing one,” he said.
“Faced with a mass casualty scenario, they performed in exemplary fashion to do their best to provide live-saving support to those strangers from Canada who had just come out of the darkness.”
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.