Dec. 10--Gene Schmitz heard the blast, felt the walls and windows shake, and saw the black smoke and flames in the distance.
As commander of the Wisconsin Air National Guard 128th Air Refueling Wing, Schmitz knew something had blown up, but it would be several agonizing minutes before he learned the worst: One of the unit's planes had exploded in a fireball, killing six guardsmen.
Even though it has been 20 years, the memories are still fresh.
"Whoever was here remembers exactly what they were doing, where they were when they found out what happened," Schmitz, a retired brigadier general, said Tuesday morning after a poignant memorial service on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.
The six were performing routine maintenance when a spark ignited fuel inside a KC-135 Stratotanker. The plane with tail number 1470 had returned to Milwaukee from a routine flight the previous evening. The next morning two specialists from the unit's fuels shop were sent to the plane to troubleshoot an increase in the amount of fuel in the forward fuel tank.
Meanwhile, three avionics technicians were checking minor problems with cockpit controls. Also on board was the aircraft's crew chief.
At 2 minutes after 7 a.m. the plane exploded. Investigators determined the aircraft had undergone a faulty maintenance overhaul at an Air Force facility -- a boost pump was not assembled correctly and a tiny BB of molten copper used to attach wires flew into a fuel tank.
"A one in a million shot of two wires coming together," said Schmitz, who was wing commander from 1987 to 1997.
Killed in the explosion Dec. 10, 1993, were Master Sgt. Roy Starszak, 57; Master Sgt. James Schlicht, 41; Technical Sgt. James Russell, 33; Technical Sgt. Michael Heath, 32; Technical Sgt. Russell Shurr, 35; and Staff Sgt. Patrick Foran, 31.
"They gave their lives for their countries," Schmitz said.
Family members, 128th retirees and airmen attended a 20-minute ceremony at Sijan Dining Hall at the base at Mitchell International Airport. A wreath was laid in their honor, and the base flag above a memorial to the men was lowered to half-staff.
After a St. Francis Fire Department truck bell was tolled six times, an Air Force honor guard dressed in crisp blue uniforms fired a 21-gun salute followed by taps. Airmen stood at attention inside the dining hall during a moment of silence.
Justin Shurr was 13 years old and just about to leave for school when someone from the 128th knocked on his family's front door. He attended Tuesday's ceremony with his mother, brother and other family members, sitting in the front row.
"It was tough. At first it wasn't real, when you're 13," said Shurr, who fondly remembers fishing with his father at the family's cabin in Watersmeet, Mich. "It's great to have this remembrance. He was a great dad."
Perry Pace was a firefighter with the 440th Air Force Reserve on the opposite side of the airport when he heard the explosion. He was among the many firefighters and rescuers who descended on the scene, including those who put their lives at risk to move planes parked nearby. Pace, now the 128th Air Refueling Wing's fire inspector, attended Tuesday's memorial and vividly recalled the tragedy.
"A tire shot by my truck as we pulled up" while aircraft parts flew from the exploding KC-135 Stratotanker, Pace said. "There was a lot of radiating heat. I emptied my truck's 2,200 gallons" of fire retardant foam.
Pace heard the explosion during roll call at the 440th, and that meant two shifts of workers were at the base at the time. Many assumed a plane had crash landed. All sprang into action. The air traffic control tower quickly closed the airfield, and fire trucks raced across the runways to the ramp where Tail Number 1470 was on fire.
"The worst thing was when we found out six people were on board," Pace said.
Copyright 2013 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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