Years After a Crash That Killed 248 Soldiers, Families Still Seek Answers

Christmas at the St. Petersburg, Fla., home of Zona and Doug Phillips will be troubling this year, and the joys of the season darkened by old pain. Four years ago this week, in a holiday tragedy as devastating as the Lockerbie disaster, 23-year-old Doug Phillips Jr. was one of 248 members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division who were killed when a chartered Arrow Air DC-8, bringing them home from a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai desert, crashed just after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland. “I’ve never experienced such grief—the kind where all you can do is pace around in the yard,” Doug Sr. says of the loss of his son, who left a Korean wife, Myong, now 29, and a daughter, Michelle, 5. “I should be very thankful to have had such a wonderful son for 23 years, but your children aren’t supposed to die before you. It was virtually unbearable.” To the Phillipses and other families of the dead soldiers, however, there is another intolerable pain: They have never received what they consider a plausible account of what caused that crash, the worst peacetime air disaster in U.S. military history.

Like other relatives of the soldiers in the Dec. 12, 1985, disaster—and like four of nine officials who investigated it—the Phillipses have only one somber explanation: They think that American and Canadian authorities, who reviewed the crash because it took place on Canadian soil, engaged in a cover-up of plentiful evidence suggesting the plane was brought down by a bomb like the one that blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. They believe such evidence was downplayed to avoid potential political damage: The critics speculate that there was a botched secret 1985 attempt to free the American hostages in Lebanon, which led terrorists to retaliate, or that the bombing was brought on by U.S. mix-ups in the arms-for-hostages deal. And they point out that the FBI, which claimed its only role in the investigation was helping to identify bodies, has nonetheless released only 41 of the 277 pages in its own report. The Phillipses are hardly alone in harboring such suspicions. Says Les Filotas, a dissenting member of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, the official investigative body: “The Americans could have said something as benign as, ‘Don’t speculate without proof.’ Canadian authorities would have gotten the message [to stay away from the bomb theory].”

The CASB report was issued a year ago, with five members attributing the crash to icing of the plane’s wings and four, in a minority report, blaming an in-flight fire, possibly caused by an explosion. The unprecedented split stirred Doug Phillips, 55, a pathologist, and Zona, 49, who is Doug Jr.’s stepmother, to action (Doug Jr.’s mother has not participated). They have formed Families for Truth About Gander, with members from 125 other families whose sons died, to force the U.S. to make its own investigation, as it is legally permitted to do. “We’re outraged by the lack of cooperation and interest from the U.S. government,” says Zona. “They’ve treated us with total disregard.”

Their campaign got dramatic but puzzling impetus last July when a retired Canadian supreme court justice, appointed to review the CASB investigation, found insufficient evidence of either ice or a fire yet did not urge that the case be reopened—leaving no official explanation for the crash.

The Phillipses, the CASB minority and other experts are especially disturbed by evidence the majority investigators either ignored or dealt with only in passing, including eyewitness accounts. They see similarities between the Lockerbie and Gander crashes: Both involved military personnel at Christmastime, and Pan Am 103 was felled by a bomb in the forward baggage compartment, where, the CASB minority believes, there was also evidence of an explosion on the DC-8. “I think the icing theory is ludicrous,” says Zona. “It’s a crock. The weather conditions were not at all conducive to ice.” That view is shared by members of the ground crew, including an operator of the deicing equipment who reported that he saw no ice on the plane despite a freezing drizzle, yet was never called to testify. And Jerry Rusinowitz, an ex-flight engineer who volunteered to help the widow of the plane’s captain, believes the icing theory offered a perfect way to avoid blaming any living individuals or companies, who might have started their own unwelcome investigations. Says Rusinowitz: “The icing theory is the invisible bullet.”

Many of the critics charge that the CASB majority minimized physical evidence suggesting an explosion and that they exaggerated evidence pointing to icing. Harold Marthinsen, head of the Accident Investigation Department of the Airline Pilots Association, has even accused the CASB of concocting data from the plane’s flight recorder. Last June, in a stinging letter to the CASB chairman, Marthinsen wrote, “This study, contracted by the CASB, represents technical dishonesty at its highest.”

Most ominous to critics is the seeming haste of officials to dismiss any possibility of a bomb. Before the wreckage in Gander had stopped smoking, a terrorist group claimed responsibility. Moreover, 1985 had already seen terrorist hijackings of TWA 847 and the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Yet U.S. and Canadian officials brushed aside terrorism from the start. Says Gene Wheaton, retired U.S. Army criminal investigations special agent, who has advised the Phillipses: “It was irrational and illogical to dismiss that so quickly.”

Illogical unless, families of the victims reason, the governments didn’t want any inquiry into that possibility. The critics say an attack could easily have grown out of the then secret Iran-contra affair or some failed hostage rescue. Either scenario, they argue, could explain another oddity: the presence on the plane of six boxes, each six feet long and 160 pounds, that were put aboard in Cairo, where the flight began; to make room for those boxes, some soldiers’ duffels had to be left behind. The Army says the boxes contained “comfort kits” of plastic utensils and cups. The boxes were reportedly never found, and the report never alludes to them. Wheaton—pointing out that Oliver North’s notes refer to a planned rescue in November 1985—suspects the boxes held bodies from such an attempt. Others think they held arms that were part of a deal the Iranians rejected.

All the existing questions will remain, members of Families for Truth About Gander are convinced, unless a new inquiry is launched. “As long as I think this magnificent deception is going on,” Doug Phillips says, “I’m ashamed of my country. It compounds the grief.” Recently he and Zona gained some important allies: In October, 104 members of Congress wrote President Bush urging the U.S. to conduct its own investigation. That request makes the Phillipses more determined to keep battling. “These men who died were fighters,” says Zona. “Their motto was Never Surrender, and we’re not going to either. We think they’d be proud of us.”

—Charles E. Cohen, Meg Grant in Miami

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