FORT CAMPBELL, Ky – A stoic memorial Thursday marked the opening of a new memorial honoring 256 service members of the 101st Airborne and crew lost in a 1985 plane crash in Newfoundland.
The tragedy stands as the deadliest crash on Canadian soil, and it rocked the friends and families of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. It also inspired a 15-year-old girl in the town of Gander, Newfoundland, where the plane went down shortly after takeoff.
Janice Nikkel, now living with a family of her own in Vancouver, was moved by her mother’s description of such a loss of life and pledged her babysitting money to help plant Canadian Sugar Maple trees, one for each soldier and crew member, as her family did when a loved one passed away.
News teams spread her message around the world until Nikkel says, an Oregon tree worker called and said he’d like to help. A living memorial was soon planted on the Kentucky post more than 1,800 miles from Gander.
But, as the forest grew, caretakers noticed the maples had been planted too closely together and would not survive. A few survivors were moved to another memorial and ample space was provided for 256 new trees to take root.
Thursday’s ceremony solemnly rang in the 34th anniversary of the crash, as well as the new, sprawling forest. At the service, Nikkel received a warm reception from victims’ families and proudly wore a broach given to her by the 101st. They had long since made her an honorary member of the division.
‘The hugs I’ve received, the tears that have been coming, it’s amazing…” Nikkel said to us after the ceremony. “When you’ve lost a loved one you don’t want their memory to be forgotten, you want to remember them.”
A member of the 101st Airborne stood at attention next to each tree Thursday. Around each trunk hangs a black heart inscribed with the name of a victim in the crash. Family members used a map at the front of the memorial to find their loved one and seek out their own tree.
Once their tree was found, some family members hugged the soldier standing guard and thanked them. Others stood quietly in reflection. But not a single tree stood alone.