Friday, June 21st 2019 is a night I will never forget. Not because I was going to do another beach wedding for some Army Soldiers, but sadly, I’ll remember it because I was one of the eyewitnesses who saw the Dillingham Cessna airplane crash that killed 11 people.
From my perspective, the evening was supposed to be routine. It would start off by me performing the wedding of a Soldier and his bride at Mokule’ia
Army Beach Park across from Dillingham Airfield. Later, my plan was then to enjoy the beach in quiet reflection. Unfortunately, things took a turn when we heard what sounded like an exhaust pipe backfiring, yet the sound was different enough to second guess the noise. As I tried to discern the sound I heard, “That plane just crashed!” “I thought he was just playing around, but he really did crash!”
In my disbelief, my eyes slowly turned to the tree line blocking our view of the airfield to see a thick black pillar of smoke coming from beyond the tree line. Unfortunately, the wedding party was right and in my shock I thought, “This isn’t real…This can’t be happening! Did I just witness what I thought I saw?” Sadly, the crash was real. While I did not see it crash, I heard it, and I aaw it above the tree line before it took its sharp nose dive towards the ground.
Accepting this grim reality as truth, as Soldiers we defaulted to our training. Some Soldiers jumped into a pickup truck and sped off to the site of the crash. I stayed behind as there was no room in the truck, but quickly raced to the highway that divided Dillingham Airfield from Mokule’ia Army Beach Park where we were going to have the wedding. As I rushed to the road I called 911 to inform them of the crash. On calling them they asked,
“Are you calling about the downed aircraft?”
To which I replied, “Yes, I am.”
They were already aware of its crash as many others had already called 911. What they did not know is where on the airfield the crash occurred. Though I hate that the crash occurred, my call was important because I was able to tell 911 exactly on the airfield where to send the Emergency Services. Still, I had not yet hit the road to clearly see the crash.
Not long after completing my call with 911 I reached the road where I immediately saw the plane engulfed in flames. No, the flames were not super high like in an action movie, but they were 10 to 20 feet tall depending on the burn. People were already starting to gather at the crash site. My Soldier friends from the wedding party had driven really close to the crash in an attempt to rescue anyone, but there was no-one to rescue as the fire was too strong for anyone to survive. Furthermore, the plane crashed just on the inside of the airfield on the opposite side of the fence, literally blocking anyone from reaching the site.
As the fire raged we began to see additional explosions coming from the plane. Again, the explosions were not like something you see in a movie, but were more like microbursts. Regardless of their size, we didn’t know how large a future explosion might become. Therefore, my Soldiers friends and I proceeded to block off the road to protect people from any future explosions. Not knowing how big of an explosion that could occur we wanted to avoid further casualties. More microburst explosions did occur and it looked like they were from when the fire did reached the planes rescue box igniting the flares within. Beyond these flares there were not further explosions, but at the time no one knew for sure.
Despite our attempts, people did drive around our blockades. In fact, if you’ve seen the now famous footage it is from someone’s cellphone who arrogantly drove their truck around us for social media notoriety to get the film. That “hero” cursed us out and drove around our blockade while disregarding safety concerns for themselves. In hindsight I’m glad they remained safe, but these “social media heroes” were not the only ones who avoided our blockade.
Others figured the road was about to be blocked off for hours and wanted to get by the crash to avoid being stuck on that side of the island. There is only one way in and out to that area on Oahu and once blocked off, the plane crash would prevent anyone from driving by for an undetermined amount of time. Their assumption was correct because I did not leave the Mokule’ia Army Beach Park until late that night.
Before leaving that isolated side of the island, before the wedding, I did see an image that will haunt me for days. Responding to the crash was the charter flight company trying to reach any survivors. Unlike me and my fellow Army Soldiers, they were on the side of the fence where the plane burned. Though they didn’t have a fence preventing them from rescuing anyone, they sadly had to walk away because they knew there were no lives left to rescue. In protest, I watched one employee yell out in pain, anger, and frustration upward into the air. His back was half bent over backwards as he screamed. He expressed a guttural cry of emotion, one indicating that he knew his friends were gone, but not ready to emotionally accept their death. As a minister and chaplain I wanted nothing more than to go over and try to console him. However, I knew if I jumped the fence of an airfield I’d create other issues and distract from the safety efforts. Therefore, I did the only two things I knew to do at that moment: pray for everyone involved and console those gathering around on my side of the fence.
Beyond the wedding party I was originally there to perform a wedding for, one couple arrived and asked if it the crashed plane was a twin Cessna. If so, their fear was that their friends were on it because they operated a plane with twin engines. At the time not knowing the answer, I later found reports that said it was a twin Cessna. My prayer has been that it was not their friends. Loss is loss and they probably knew the flight crew anyway, I hope any words I spoke to them then was an encouragement. Also, there was the wedding party to care for and what needs they might have beyond a wedding, if a wedding at all.
Some may balk at their choice to proceed with the wedding, but that was their choice and since we were stuck on that side of the island we decided to continue as originally planned. Before that decision was made I told the Bride and Groom, “Look, if you all are not up for this tonight I get it. However, it does look like we are going to be here for a while so if we are stuck here then we can! It is your choice!” They thought and talked it over and decided to go ahead anyway. It was a sunset wedding we will never forget.
Obviously, the events related to the crash changed our perspective and approach. For starters we opened in prayer before doing anything else and everyone in attendance genuinely prayed. We prayed for this couple, but more for the families of the crash. At the time we had heard that 9 people had died. The next day we would find out that the total count was upgraded to 11 people. Still, we prayed for the families. Believing that the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf I trust that regardless of the count, He took it to the throne of God who heard our cry and provided compassion to those affected by the crash.
Completing the wedding was special and somber, but meaningful. Much emphasis was placed on the value of life and how important this relates to marriage. Encouragement was given to the couple to allow their marriage to be a Memorial within their lives to love another no matter the conflict. That life is precious and spending it with those we love is what matters most. Respectful celebrations were all around once the wedding concluded since we were still stuck on that side of the island due to the crash. We decided to make the most of the circumstances.
Humorously, I went to my car to change into my shorts and fedora meant for my beach time in solitude. Once changed I returned to the wedding party under the dark Hawaiian sky causing someone to say they saw some “random” guy in a hat and shorts sitting in a beach chair next to their party. That’s when they shouted, “That’s the Chaplain!” Their response to my change of outfits (including the hat) became a needed point of humor. The humor even served to break the ice for some within the wedding party to talk to me about their grief, even as others celebrated.
As the celebrations continued under the dark sky lit mostly from just the Big Dipper, I watched the couple have their first dance, I saw the daddy daughter dance. Each dance was done was further illuminated by cellphone flashlights. Yep, the dances were done in a circle of cellphone lights to illuminate the way. Again, the evening was truly one that was unique, special, and somber. One I’ll never forget because I think we all respectfully made the most of the surroundings.
Finally, the evening concluded when we saw the long line of cars being let through the blockade that we started some hours ago. Not knowing how long the reprieve from the blockade would last we all agreed it was best to try to get home while we could. As I drove away I was still in shock. In the days ahead I would remain slightly traumatized from the events that I saw. Flying to both Kauai and Molokai islands within Hawaii I anxiously responded to the slightest form of turbulence. On one flight I remember the Flight Attendant watching me carefully to make sure I was fine, which I appreciated. One year later, I have become better with turbulence, but I would be lying if I said the crash did not go through my mind. With its remembrances come some lessons and appreciations one year later…
- How Quickly One’s Life Can Change In An Instant – We should then appreciate every moment as a gift—remembering that we always get to choose our response. In the meantime, embrace and cherish your loved ones like never before!
- Some Things Are Not Worth Putting On Social Media – I still have the pictures on my phone of the plane burning. They are not super graphic, so one year later, I debated including them in this post. Ultimately, I chose to omit them. Even with time, I think there are some things inappropriate for social media. In our digital age, let’s strive to keep some things private.
- Recognize Where The Lord Has Placed You And Thrive – I wanted to run and help the charter employee screaming into the air, but the fence was a barrier in my path, or was it? See, the barrier held me where possibly the Lord needed me most, which is to minister to the people on my side of the fence, which I embraced.
- You Can Add Your Meaning To Anything – The couple I performed the wedding for could have chosen to get married another night. After all, they were doing the traditional big wedding in Wisconsin; ours was only legal. However, they decided to turn the events into a more meaningful marriage than ever. They chose to deepen their appreciation and love for another as anything can happen at any time.
Being a reflective person, I am sure there will be lessons I will mine from this experience for the rest of my life. For now, these are the significant encouragements, sorrows, and learning points from this plane crash, one year later. My prayer is that it gives you at least some of the perspective this experience has taught me.
If so, please share your respectful thoughts below, and thank you for reading!