Early in its history as an elite force, the New York National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing suffered a devastating tragedy.
On June 13, 1978, the Westhampton Beach-based unit lost seven members when one of its helicopters slammed into a rain-shrouded Adirondack peak while returning from a training mission near the Canadian border.
This Wednesday, the 106th will mark the 40th anniversary of the crash, in a ceremony at the mountainside near Keeseville, New York, where their comrades perished.
The ceremony, during which aircraft from the 106th will perform a flyover, is expected to draw scores of the unit’s current and former members, as well as relatives of the lost crew.
“We lost seven men, and for a young rescue unit, it was devastating,” said Jay Jinks, 68, of Mastic, who was a para-rescueman with the 106th at the time, and who, with several other retired veterans of the 106th, are organizing the commemorative event. “We were close even before the accident, but after that, it bought the unit even closer together.”
The crash came before the unit’s reputation had caught up with its critical mission, before it drew praise for saving American soldiers trapped in firefights in Iraq, or for rescuing crew members from aboard a stricken freighter last year by dropping pararescue swimmers into the night-darkened Atlantic 1,500 miles offshore.
Dead in the crash were Capt. John Sfeir, 29, of East Moriches; Capt. John Kievens, 30, of Northport; Master Sgt. Allan Snyder, 35, of Center Moriches; Tech Sgt. Ronald Allen of Corona, Queens; Tech. Sgt. Ralph Tomassone Jr. of Bayport; and Staff Sgt. Scott Hursch, 26, and Staff Sgt. David D. Lambert, 22, who were roommates in East Moriches.
The crew, which had been practicing water landings in Lake Champlain, had left Plattsburgh and was heading back to Long Island when a thunderstorm persuaded the pilot to turn back about 10 minutes into the flight. The helicopter clipped the top of Trembleau Mountain. A resident of nearby Keeseville hiked two miles through deep brush to find the burning wreckage.
Jinks and others say the 1978 crash helped to steel the newly formed rescue unit, which remains composed of transport aircraft, rescue helicopters, and pararescuemen like himself — paramedic soldiers who are equipped to parachute into the sea and swim to the aid of people needing medical aid.
They say the crash, and weeks of consoling the wives and children of the dead, served as a sobering reminder of the deadly seriousness of the mission.
“It wasn’t an obvious change, but all of a sudden you realized you had to train harder and be more aware,” Jinks said.
Members of the 106th, which is responsible for civilian search-and-rescue missions off the Atlantic coast, as well as on land during U.S. combat operations, belie the National Guard’s often-held image of one-weekend-per-month warriors.
The wing’s pararescue airmen go through two years of training in scuba diving, parachuting, emergency medical skills, search and rescue, and survival, escape and evasion. A large fraction of the 106th’s personnel serve full time — as did four of the seven who perished in 1978.
The dangerous mission of the 106th was on display again just three months ago, when an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq. Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, 30, of Port Jefferson Station, Capt. Christopher Zanetis, 37, of Long Island City, Capt. Andreas O’Keeffe, 37, of Center Moriches, and Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, 39, of Commack, were among seven Americans who were killed.
Members of the 106th who deployed to Iraq with the crew members who were killed in the March crash are just now returning home from that deployment. And even the unit’s part-time guardsmen are typically on duty about 150 days a year.
Kurt Silverstein, a former pararescue airman who served 18 years in the unit before retiring in 2005, said a framed question mark once hung amid a display of photographs of the perished crew members in the unit’s former operations building, as if to ask “Who’s next?” He said the unspoken question served as a regular reminder that even during the unit’s training missions — like that which led to the 1978 crash — lives are at stake.
“Though I’d never met them, knowing something like that had happened to people with their character, their work ethic, their willingness to do the job would bring your focus and attention to higher mark,” said Silverstein, a wiry motorcyclist who had worked as an emergency room physician at Good Samaritan Hospital before joining the unit.
“You knew this was training, but you knew you had better act like it’s the real thing,” Silverstein said. “Because training could be more dangerous than the actual mission.”
The unit has had two other fatal incidents since the 1978 crash, according to the commemoration’s organizers.
One came during another training incident, in 1980, when Staff Sgt. Larry Arnott hit a rock during a parachute jump while training in the Nevada desert.
The next happened Oct. 30, 1991, an incident depicted in the feature film during “The Perfect Storm.”
A helicopter sent to the rescue of three people trapped on a sailboat in 80-foot waves was unable to execute an in-flight refueling in 75-mph winds, ran out of gas, and was forced into the sea. Tech. Sgt. Arden “Rick” Smith became separated from the others during the six hours it took rescuers to find them. His body was never recovered.
Jinks decided to organize the commemoration last year, after visiting the 1978 crash site for the first time.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Mike Hewson, who oversees the 106th’s pararescue squadron, said Jinks and the other former members are repositories of memories and values that help guide the unit’s newer members, who typically were born more than a decade after the 1978 crash.
“A lot of the younger people will never appreciate the gravity of what went on then without these guys to keep these stories alive,” Hewson said. “To have these guys still involved, it’s an honor to have their knowledge and experience.”
Jacquie Sfeir was raising three childen when her husband, John Sfeir, perished on the mountain. Her youngest — twin 4-year-olds then — were still so small their feet couldn’t reach the ground from the chairs they sat on during a memorial ceremony at the 106th 40 years ago.
But she plans to travel to Wednesday’s memorial service from her home near Canton, Ohio, saying members and spouses of the 106th had rallied around her and others in grief, helping her and her children to endure.
“You build your life again, but the memories come back,” said Sfeir. “I feel honored and thankful that they are doing this. It will be great to see everyone again and give John and the crew this honor.”