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Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash

Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash
Posted at 9:40 AM, Nov 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-07 11:40:22-05

On November 30, 1992, two C-141 cargo planes from McChord Air Force Base in Washington collided in the air near Harlem along Montana's Hi-Line during a refueling training exercise.

The 13 Airmen on board the two planes were killed.

"The memorial started the morning after the crash, the planning process started. There was a committee of about 17 people on board and we just started making plans with private donations of money, materials, supplies, and labor,’ Memorial Committee Co-Chair Darwin Zellmer said as he stood next to the large stone in the center of the memorial.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the tragic day, the memorial committee is planning a ceremony to be held at the memorial.

"This particular rock was peaked up and straight over and down and we wanted it to peak at the center except for one member. They said 'No, you can't do that. It's going to ruin the rock.' But it turned out beautiful in my opinion. Then, we had the plaques built by a foundry in Montana that made all these plaques for us and at the north site. They're getting deteriorated. We need to give them a good polish but we want to revive them and let this last forever,” Zellmer said.

"It's just another closing for us,” said Chinook Fire Chief Kraig Hansen when asked why the ceremony is important.

Hansen is a memorial committee member and was the fire chief in Harlem when the crash happened.

"I think the people who helped do this, who responded that night, or even the community will remember some of the things we did,” Hansen said.

While the ceremony serves as an important reminder of the tragedy 30 years ago, it's also an important reminder about what's needed for the next 30 years and beyond.

Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash
Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash

“Some of the fellas (on the memorial committee) are getting really old and we just need younger people to help maintain it,” Hansen said.

Looking over photographs and other documents related to the memorial, life-long Harlem resident Karolee Cronk recalled the crash.

She remembers it well.

"That night, I didn't hear the crash. I was shampooing carpet because I was having a club Christmas party the next day. So it was when I got to work the next morning and was at school and here it is, the TV going in the library and everybody just devastated,” Cronk said. "You're having to explain a bit to kids at school.”

Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash
Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash

"Goodness, that these sad things happen and they were military men doing for your country,” she continued when asked how she explained what happened to the kids.

Her hope is people remember the kindness and care that have been shown over the years in response to the crash.

"We need to be kind and caring about other people, and I think Harlem really, really gave back. I'm a big proponent of you give back and I still see this in the people, giving back,” said Cronk.

For this story, Hansen and Zellmer drove down a road that ends a short distance away from the crash site.

Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash
Community continues to honor Airmen 30 years after deadly Montana crash

It was the first time Hansen had been back there since the crash. Among other things, he and Zellmer recalled how cold it was on that November day.

"I was watching out for the members of the fire department because we got buses up here so we could sit in the buses and wait for the military police,” Hansen said.

Along with the memorial in Harlem, there is also a smaller roadside memorial not far from the crash site.

"Vic Miller was the mayor of Harlem at the time and he said 'You know, we need some stones around here from where the airplanes crashed." So he and some of the firemen and whoever else took a trailer, a tractor, a skid-steer over to the crash site and they found these stones,” Zellmer said standing next to the small stones placed at the memorial next to the large memorial stone there. "When they looked at them they said 'This is one we're going to use.' It just hit them in the heart that this is part of Montana, this is a part of us, and they wanted to place these stones here to protect the memorial as well as memorialize those 13 boys."

For Hansen, the memory of bringing the Airmen's families to the roadside is what sticks with him the most about the memorial.

"I remember one family was looking where I'm pointing, where we found the fuselage. I knew their son wasn't even in that direction, he was more to the north, so I went over there and i told them that's the hill over there they should be looking at. To this day, I get cards from them thanking me for that day,” said Hansen. "I know if the roles were reversed I would want somebody to do that for me, so I think that's a great thing that we did."

The ceremony will be held at 3:30 p.m. on November 30 at the memorial in Harlem and will include the dedication of a new pedestrian bridge.