Hercules Crash in 1992
On October 7, 1992 a C-130E Hercules aircraft from the 167th Airlift Group located atMartinsburg, WV crashed near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, killing the plane’s six crew members. The crew members were Alfred John Steinberger, III, Lieutenant Colonel, Frederic Earl Jones, Staff Sergeant, Dallas Odell Adams, Jr., Captain, James Timony Hinchman, Staff Sergeant, George Franklin Griffith, Master Sergeant, and John Funkhouser, Technical Sergeant. The plane had hit a string of power lines 381 feet above the ground, dragging them for several miles with a wing on fire and crashed upside down on a farmhouse owned by Milton Barnhart. Barnhart, 78 was inside but he escaped with only singed hair.
I was a technical sergeant working as an information technician in the Public Affairs Office at the 167th. In my civilian life, I worked in the federal government as a Revenue Agent for the Internal Revenue Service. It was the only time I was activated during my 21 years (1976-1997) as a traditional guardsman, but though this happened nearly 20 years ago, I remember it as if it were yesterday.
It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish High holiday. I was home observing the holiday when our phone rang at about 11am. We usually do not answer the phone on Yom Kippur, but on that day, for some reason I decided to answer it. It was from the 167th, Headquarters office. The base commander’s secretary told me that there was an emergency at the base and that I had to come immediately. She would not tell me why or how long I had to stay, but she did say that I had to be prepared to stay awhile. I called my IRS manager and told her I had to report to Martinsburg ASAP. She changed my leave status from annual to military.
I literally threw all my Guard uniforms and a set of civilian clothes in the back of my car, while jumping in a pair of BDUs. Approximately two hours later I reported to the Command Post and was handed a sheet of paper with a news release of the crash. My job was to answer the phones and answer questions from the outside press; I was to read them the information on that sheet of paper. I sat down in the HQs office and almost immediately calls came in from Associated Press, CNN, the Washington Post, and major TV stations asking questions about the crash. When the Public Affairs Office ( and my boss) Major Pat Dockeney was busy on his line, I took additional media calls on my phone, reading from my news release page, word for word. Basically the fact sheet stated that the one of the base’s C-130E Hercules aircraft had crashed in nearby Morgan County about two miles northeast of Berkeley Springs. The accident, the fact sheet reported, occurred shortly before 9:30am and that there was a confirmation that five of the six crew members had been killed. In addition, a shed on the ground had been destroyed and that a fire resulted from the crash. There was an earlier report that a parachute was spotted, but this was refuted because there were no parachutes on board the aircraft.
After about thirty minutes of continuous phone calls, I was told to board an army helicopter and proceed to the crash site to assist in public relations work with the press there. The crash site was about 25 miles away and the copter trip only a few minutes. However, the trip seemed like it took hours due to the cold air thrown on me by the whirling props of the Huey. Finally we landed and I met the on-scene commander and the Public Affairs representative. The Public Affairs rep on the scene was exhausted from the day’s events and wanted to go home. She handed me her disaster preparedness arm band and press badge and said good luck. It was 1600.
The major news networks were there setting up their cameras for the 6:00pm news. Several of the reporters came to me asking more questions and for further updates on the crash. One reporter wanted to know if there was any truth to an eyewitness who saw a parachute come out of the plane before crashing. I reiterated that all I could say was what was on my news release fact sheet. The one of the networks wanted someone from my unit to go on camera. If I could not find anyone to be on camera then I would have to speak for the base. (Major Pat Dockeney had assured me that I would never, ever, have to be on camera; that was his job!) Luckily the on-scene commander agreed to go before the microphone. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At 2200 hours I finally was able to leave the crash site and return to the base. I stayed on base that night at our barracks and reported to the Command Center (CAT) at 0700. I was now told to head back to the crash site by military vehicle. I brought my 35mm SLR camera and color film with me. Since the regular military photographers had not arrived.
Yet, I began photographing the crash site. It was unreal, almost surreal. The aircraft had almost disintegrated on impact, and only small pieces of the Hercules could be recognized. After taking the photos, my film was taken by the Safety Officer (I never did get to see them) Then some local TV and newspaper media arrived and wanted updates on the crash. I called back to Pat Dockeney at the Command Center on a special communications line and he gave me an update to read to the press. But this did not satisfy the reporters; they too wanted a base rep to be on camera. This time I could not find an on-scene commander to fill in the press, and I had to be in front of the microphone. I did the best I could, but I ain’t no Walter Cronkite! (Later a security policeman said he saw me on a local Hagerstown TV station and I was not that bad).
After the TV people left, all I had to do was deal with some local photographers. One, form the Daily Mail in Hagerstown took a photo of me giving water bottles to Milton Barnhart whose house had been destroyed in the crash. He had wanted the water for his dog who had also had luckily survived the crash.
I returned to the base later that afternoon. The remainder of the week, or a total of four days of active duty, was spent helping out with he telephones at the command post. This included memorial service preparations and other related work. Late Saturday, I was allowed to go home. I had always wondered what God would do if I answered the phone on Yom Kippur. That fateful October day in 1992 I found out.