Milwaukee, WI National Guard Plane Explodes, Dec 1993
GUARD PLANE EXPLODES, 6 KILLED.
ROUTINE MAINTENANCE ENDS IN TRAGEDY - CAUSE UNKNOWN.
Milwaukee - The members of the National Guard's 128th Refueling Group accept the premise that death in war may one day be the price of their work.
But on Friday morning they lost six of their most experienced men to an enemy that has no name.
It was supposed to be routine maintenance, everyone agreed as they relieved the tragedy Friday afternoon. The crew had assembled at 6 a.m. to work on "minor write-ups," little things such as broken gauge lights and switches. Moments later they were in the plane they knew every nook and cranny of a KC-135, the military version of the Boeing 707 used to refuel other planes in flight.
Just after 7 a.m. the tanker exploded, for reasons military investigators are trying to determine.
Lt. Col. Paul Bart, who had been in a meeting in the headquarters' staff room, left to see what had caused the noise.
He was confronted by a four or five story tower of flame - the product of 4,500 gallons of fuel on fire.
"It was yellow-yellow with black, billowing smoke," he recalled, still numb at the memory.
"I love that aircraft," he said.
"I've flown it a lot. It's like your home burning."
In five minutes that witnesses said seemed to go on forever, six men died who were part of a National Guard unit that likes to think of itself as an extended family.
"We are helping each other through this, just like a family would," Senior Master Sgt. Jeff Rohloff said.
The 128th, headquartered at Mitchell International Airport, never has experienced anything quite like this. Renowned for its safety record, the 128th's last accident occurred in 1969.
Firefighters from Milwaukee County, the 128th and their airport military neighbors, the 440th Air Force Reserve Airlift Wing, battled the fire. They had the blaze out in five minutes. The airport was closed for an hour.
Then firefighters were told to conduct a search for possible survivors. But "there was nothing to go inside of," 440th Fire Chief Roger Edwards recalled sadly. The plane's remains amounted to little more than one wing and the shell of an engine.
Hours passed before the remains of the crew could be removed.
Before the morning was over, Maj. Karl Kreuger, a Lutheran minister and military chaplain, had begun notifying relatives about the identities of the victims, and the Milwaukee County medical examiner had begun a comparison of the limited remains with military dental records.
The victims, all Milwaukee-area residents, later were identified as:
Master Sgt. ROY STARZAK, 57.
Master Sgt. JAMES SCHLICHT, 41.
Technical Sgt. JAMES RUSSELL, 33.
Technical Sgt. MICHAEL HEATH, 32.
Technical Sgt. RUSSELL SHURR, 35.
Staff Sgt. PATRICK FORAN, 31.
Before noon, U.S. flags in the area flared stiff at half-staff in the bitter wind.
People at headquarters struggled to maintain a rigid, military demeanor. No one was seen crying, but people walked arm in arm down hallways.
"You've got to do your job. You've got to keep busy," Rohloff said, explaining how he had handled the grief so far.
Counselors are being contacted to help people deal with their grief. And explanations, in such short supply Friday, will be coming with the results of an investigation by a U.S. Air Force team of experts from across the country, who were to arrive Friday night.
Chicago Tribune Illinois 1993-12-11