Last revised: October 12, 2013

"The Love and Honor of a Son!"
(By Post-Standard Columnist Sean Kirst)

Thomas Mathews, son of Staff Sgt. Thomas Merfeld, one of the seven men killed in a 1959 flash fire at Skytop at Syracuse University, NY. Thomas was one of the speakers at a special Memorial ceremony on Friday October 4, 2013.

Skytop Memorial: at Syracuse University,
The Love and Honor of a son.

Thomas Mathews was surrounded Friday by dignitaries and uniformed members of the Air Force who'd gathered at Skytop, the south campus of Syracuse University. It was a gentle autumn afternoon, and you could hear the faraway shouts and laughter of students practicing for intramural touch football.

Near the same green spot, more than 50 years ago, Mathews lost his father, Thomas Merfeld Sr., in a flash fire that killed seven Airmen who were studying at SU.

Around Mathews, older men were greeting each other with hugs, with eruptions of friendship, of recognition, that rose and fell in conversation. But Mathews was quiet, given up to his own thoughts. His mother, in her grief, had rarely talked about his father. Later, she would marry a kind and giving man, George Mathews, who raised her three children as his own.

What Tom Mathews had known about his dad was always distant, bits and pieces, and now he was on the green lawn of a campus where his father had studied, surrounded by brick buildings once used by Air Force personnel.

"Just to be in a place where my dad went to school, to be standing at a spot where he lived ..."

Mathews, 58, left the thought unfinished, laughter of the students in the wind.

From 1951 until 1971, the Air Force contracted with SU to provide classes for young Airmen in Russian and the Slavic languages. On Jan. 6, 1959 - a bitter winter's morning with gale force winds - a boiler overheated and fire swept through the prefabricated barracks known as M-7.

Seven men died. Twenty were injured, according to Arlen Trapp, an historian who's studied the fire. Yet the tragedy was soon all but forgotten, at least officially. The program was part of what the Air Force called "security services," conducted during the global American chess game with the Soviets known as the Cold War.

Many of the white-haired retirees who gathered Friday at SU believe there was no memorial, no public grieving, because the government did not want to draw Soviet attention to this language program in Syracuse.

Nothing happened for more than a half-century. Finally, in 2012, several former Airmen wrote letters to The Post-Standard, wondering about the absence of a memorial. Columnist Dick Case took up the cause. And a group of retired Airmen called the Prop Wash Gang contacted SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor about the chance of creating a lasting tribute.

Cantor embraced the idea. Friday, at Skytop, a monument was finally unveiled.

What is believed to be the last picture of the Merfeld family before Thomas Merfeld died in the Skytop fire of 1959. Merfeld is with his wife Donna, and their children, Lynn and Tom. Donna Merfeld was expecting their third child.

Tom Mathews traveled with his family, from Minneapolis, for the event. His wife Jana and their sons, Ryan and Brett, waited quietly as Mathews studied the monument. He was only 3 when his father died. He has no memories of his dad, although he's been told that Merfeld - at 29, one of the oldest men in the barracks - made it outside, then ran back in to try and warn other Airmen, many of them in their teens.

"I always wondered," Mathews said, "what my life would have been like, growing up with him."

Of Thomas Merfeld's family, Mathews is the last survivor. His mother, brother and sister all died too young. Friday could have been a day lost to grief, to all that loss.

Instead, Mathews was distracted, half-listening to questions, as if locked into something beyond what the rest of us could see or hear, at Skytop.


Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Email him at, visit his blog at, 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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