Family members and friends of Faro VFD remember what it was like to experience a B-52 crash in their backyard
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 28, 2012 1:46 PM
Residents of Faro -- many of whom were among the first responders to an infamous B-52 crash that unfolded Jan. 24, 1961 -- stand in front of the historical highway marker commemorating the event that will be unveiled Friday morning in Eureka at the intersection of N.C. 222 and Faro Road. Each, for his or her own reason, is angry that the marker is located more than three miles away from the crash site -- and outside their community.
EUREKA -- It started on the front porch of a small town restaurant -- a conversation meant to unwrap the strife between the residents of a Wayne County farming community and the state of North Carolina.
They didn't seem to mind that it was pushing 90 degrees.
Decades of fighting fires have conditioned them to be able to tolerate far worse.
But they knew they had a story to tell and a point to make -- that the two wooden benches outside the storefront wouldn't accommodate the dozen-plus Faro residents who showed up in Eureka Wednesday afternoon to make sure their voices were heard.
So they moved indoors to talk about the event that brought them together -- a night when it was so cold that hot coffee couldn't warm them; a night when some prayed they weren't witnessing the end of days.
Mary Lancaster can still see an Air Force B-52 barreling out of control -- crashing to the ground not far from her home.
And Landis Davis and William Darden can feel the sting of fingers going numb during a search and rescue mission that unfolded in the middle of a blustery winter night.
Each had a tale to tell -- a unique account of what transpired Jan. 24, 1961.
But this particular occasion wasn't meant for storytelling.
They had converged on that small town dive to question just why a historical highway marker commemorating the crash is being unveiled some three miles away from the site of the near-catastrophe.
"We were there. We were involved in it," said Darden, one of the first members of the Faro Volunteer Fire Department to respond to the scene. "This isn't a speed limit sign. This is history, as far as we're concerned."
And the plane didn't come down in Eureka at the corner of Hwy. 222 and Faro Road, he added.
So the "piece of history" associated with the event that has, in many ways, defined his town for more than 50 years, shouldn't rest their either.
It belongs just down the road, Darden and his neighbors contend.
It belongs to the men and women of Faro who risked their lives the night Eastern North Carolina came within earshot of Armageddon.
Adam Mattocks remembers when his co-pilots lost control of a B-52 armed with two Mark 39 nuclear bombs -- weapons designed to impose more than 200 times the damage inflicted on Japan near the end of World War II.
And he could tell you nearly every detail of the crash -- how a fuel leak and structure damage made the aircraft's plight inevitable; how it went down nearly an hour before it would have reached Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
But the lone living surviving member of the crew admits he only knows one side of the story.
He hitched a ride back to the Goldsboro installation shortly after he landed safely in a Faro field.
The rest of the tale -- how first responders from the upstart Faro Volunteer Fire Department secured the scene and searched for survivors; how Mrs. Lancaster made coffee every day for nearly a month for the men responsible for clearing the wreckage through a bitter cold -- belongs to the residents of that humble town.
So many consider the fact that they were not consulted when the state decided to erect a marker, at best, a slight against "the little man."
And James Parker, a 14-year veteran of the department, characterized the location of it as an insult.
"These fellas sitting over here, they are the ones who were there that day," he said, scanning the faces of those aged firefighters among him. "Out of respect and out of what's decent and right, it should be in Faro. Case closed. End of story.
"To have this thing placed here is just wrong. Place it down there where the plane went down or at the fire department or where the bombs were at. Do it for the people who lost their lives that day. Do it for the people like (Mrs. Lancaster) who was hauling drinks to the people out there. Do it for the guys who showed up on that scene and worked it all night. ... Ground Zero is where it belongs."
When Jan. 24, 1961, is officially immortalized Friday at 11 a.m., those who, Wednesday, spoke out against it's location will be there.
Despite their disdain with the state's decision to unveil it outside the Faro town limits, they wouldn't miss an opportunity to honor those who served alongside them that night -- and the three airmen who perished in the crash.
But in the back of their minds, they still won't think it's right -- even if each say they will never forget the circumstances that led to the ceremony in the first place.
"The state of North Carolina putting this together, it's a gentlemanly gesture, but there were a lot of noble men that day, not only in the Armed Forces, but also on the fire scene, that put their lives in danger to serve this county, this state and this country," Parker said. "If you have a loved one die today and went out a half a mile from here and buried them in the cemetery on the side of the road, why in he world would you go to Fremont to put the grave marker down?
"Don't forget the little man. Don't forget the fellas who went down there to help put that fire out -- the guys who put their lives on the line."
The residents of Faro won't.
To them, the real marker will forever reside in their rural town -- in the stories passed down through the generations; in the annual visits from government officials seeking water samples from the areas surrounding the rumored location of the Mark 39 they say was never removed from the earth; in their memories of fire and destruction.
"All I remember was, when I looked out the window, it looked like the world was on fire. That's all I can tell you," said Shirley Daniels Pike. "We really did believe it was the end of time."