Last revised: October 12, 2013
"Remembrance long delayed!"
(By Post-Standard Columnist Sean Kirst)
|At Syracuse University: Air Force ROTC cadets 2nd Lt. Doug Driscoll and 2nd Lt. Piero Izquierdo carry a wreath to a new Skytop monument to seven airmen lost in a fire in 1959 during Friday Oct. 4, 2013 dedication ceremony (by Gary Walts)|
Remembrance Long Delayed: at Skytop,
after 54 years, grieving airmen honor 7 friends
Jan. 6, 1959. Presley, from Tennessee, was getting a real taste of an Upstate winter: Temperatures were down to 6 degrees. Throughout the barracks, a frigid wind blew in from cracks along the windows. A few of the students, in underwear or whatever they wore to bed, jammed bits of clothing into the openings, trying without luck to cut off the freezing draft.
About 5:30 a.m., Presley and Tidwell heard screams:
Most of the airmen were barely out of high school. Chris Donaldson, who bunked across the hall from Presley, remembers how the 18-year-old Tidwell -- his real name was Remus -- had red hair and freckles and spoke in a thick Alabama drawl. Presley and Tidwell left their room and ran to a barracks door. They tried to throw it open.
A snowdrift had jammed it shut. It wouldn't budge.
About 200 people listened as Presley told the story. They gathered Friday, near Lambreth Lane, to watch as Air Force ROTC cadets used a white wreath to officially dedicate a new Skytop memorial to seven men killed in the fire.
ROTC cadets used a white wreath to officially dedicate a new Skytop memorial to seven men killed in the fire.
Presley said he rarely mentioned the tragedy for the last 54 years. The images, for him, were better left alone. But the ceremony, he said, was a chance both to honor lost friends and to put some hard memories to rest.
He agreed to speak, to offer a painful and gripping narrative that took his listeners, step by step, through what the young airmen endured in the barracks.
Presley recalled how he and Tidwell were joined at the jammed door by Airmen Michael Gasparri and Joseph Stoll Jr. The barracks, called M-7, was burning like a torch, insulation set ablaze by a faulty boiler. Within minutes, the place would become a fireball.
Together, Presley said, he and his three friends kept trying to force the door. Maybe that effort only lasted for a few seconds, he said.
At 75, in his memory, their attempts - with no response - go on forever.
Finally, the door moved. A gust of cold air blew in through the opening, causing the flames behind them to ignite "like the sound of gas stove," Presley said.
Tidwell had gone back to the room, to get a coat. The flames roared forward, down the main corridor; one survivor later described them as "a river of fire." The door was ajar enough for Presley to tumble out, into the snow. His survival was a matter of seconds, of utter chance; Gasparri and Stoll died near the doorstep, almost alongside him.
As for Tidwell, he didn't make it back.
Presley paused. He thanked the medical emergency crews who helped with his burns. He thanked the university and a group of Air Force security services retirees known as "The Prop Wash Gang" for working together to create the monument.
Then he offered the thanks that shaped his entire life, his constant sense of gratitude and sorrow about the three friends who died after helping to push open the door.
The crowd was silent. Gray-haired spectators, some weeping quietly, waited as Presley used an iPad to go through his notes. The device would have been almost beyond imagination in 1959. Communications, even by telephone, were fragmented. In the chaotic hours after the fire, the Red Cross mistakenly told Presley's family that he'd been killed.
He would go on to build a career with the Department of Defense, a life hinged on one teenage moment at a barracks door.
"I was very lucky," said Presley, who said the monument will help put the horror of that morning to rest.
From the early 1950s into the 1970s, the Air Force contracted with SU to provide classes in Russian and Slavic languages. Long after the fire, young airmen still ate and slept at Skytop. Yet there was never a memorial or public remembrance.
Many Air Force retirees say the absence of a tribute was due to their work in military intelligence. Those decades were the peak of the Cold War, the global duel with the Soviets. The retirees believe the Air Force worried that any focus on the fire might alert the Russians to the language program.
The result: A terrible sacrifice was almost forgotten.
Luciano Iorizzo, a retired professor of history at State University College at Oswego and an Air Force veteran, said the absence of a monument "gnawed at me." He wrote to The Post-Standard in 2012, asking why it hadn't happened. Columnist Dick Case took up the cause, and the effort captured the interest of the Prop Wash Gang, who contacted the university and proposed a memorial.
"As soon as we heard about it, we said, 'Of course!'" said Eric Spina, SU's vice-chancellor and provost. He listened Friday as Thomas Mathews honored his father, Staff Sgt. Thomas Merfeld, who died in the barracks. Mathews, at the time, was only 3. His mother was so traumatized she rarely spoke of it.
"I can hear my dad whispering: 'Please, please, please don't forget us,'" Mathews said.
Donaldson, 73, sat in the front row. He and a roommate, Danny Kushner, were in M-7 when the fire broke out. They believed, for a moment, that it was a drill. Kushner opened the door. Flames ripped into the room. He and Donaldson smashed a chair into the window.
There was screen mesh behind the glass. Their room amounted to a cage.
Donaldson, who'd played high school football, put his shoulder to the mesh and knocked it out. He and Kushner went through the window. Historian Arlen Trapp said Donaldson, with cuts and bruises, was among the many injured.
"I'm glad to be here," Donaldson said quietly. The survivors had no counseling, almost no emotional breather. They were soon back at school, walking each day past the charred ruins of M-7.
Presley made a point of thanking Larry Murdoch, 77, who'd been sleeping in a nearby barracks. He and a friend, Lee Toner, saw the flames and ran to to help. At full sprint, they kept shouting, "Fire!" while banging on windows. By the time they'd covered the length of the building, flames had engulfed it, Murdoch said.
Like Presley, Jim Kyrish, 75, tries not to dwell on the fire. He and a roommate escaped in the same manner as Donaldson, and Kyrish heard and saw many things in those last minutes that even now he prefers to forget.
The monument is important, said Kyrish, who rode a train from Texas to attend the ceremony: He wanted to honor the sacrifice of his friends. As for everything else, he tries to push it from his mind.
Still, almost 55 years later, Kyrish responds to a lesson from Syracuse whenever he sleeps in a hotel room or any place away from home.
"I always make sure," he said, "there's some way to escape."
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Email him at email@example.com, visit his blog at www.syracuse.com/kirst, write to him in care of The Post-Standard, 220 S. Warren St., Syracuse 13202 or send him a message on Facebook or Twitter.
Last revised: October 12, 2013
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