On the morning of Thursday, December 12, 1985, Arrow Air Flight 1285 took off from Gander, Newfoundland, holding troops from Cairo, Egypt. Half a mile from the runway, the plane crashed and killed all 248 passengers and eight crew members, right before Christmas.
Janice Nikkel was 15 years old at the time. She started saving her babysitting money to find a way to honour those who had lost their lives and create a memory for loved ones. In 1986, Sheridan Nurseries donated 256 Sugar Maples to the memorial in Fort Campbell, Kentucky and Janice was there to help plant.
We spoke with Janice about the memorial and how it’s helped families have a place to remember their loved ones, over 30 years later.
SN: When you were 15, what inspired you to help the families and soldiers affected by the event by creating the Gander Memorial at Fort Campbell?
Janice: On the morning of December 12, 1985, an Army aircraft en route from Cairo, Egypt, carrying 256 American soldiers and crew members crashed in Gander, NFLD shortly after takeoff.
Though the story dominated the headlines, as a 15-year-old teen concerned with boys, school and my own life, I didn’t pay much attention to this tragedy. My mom read about it and said this accident would be like ten classrooms at my high school with each person having someone die in their family. She said this is what it would have been like for this army base and then she added, “right before Christmas”. Wow. I asked her what Canadians were doing about this, and she said she didn’t know.
That night, I wrote a letter to the Toronto Star indicating I would like to donate my babysitting money to start a fund to plant trees as a living memorial for these soldiers. That was it. I knew I was only 15; what could I possibly do to make a difference? I committed the venture to God and watched it snowball from there.
On Christmas Day, Global TV came to interview me about my idea. I was interviewed on CBC Radio, 100 Huntley St., a myriad of newspapers, and UPI picked up the story. My neighbours were in Mexico for Christmas and brought home an article from their holiday with my name and story enclosed. It was surreal.
Frank Lockyear, then President of RE-Tree Int’ l (who had planted trees on Mount St. Helen’s after it had erupted) heard about me on the radio in Oregon and contacted schools in Newfoundland to find me. His connection proved to be the turning point in the story. Frank coordinated the tree planting with the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, where the fallen soldiers were based. He secured an acre of land for the tree plant at the centre of this the largest army base in the U.S.
Howard Stensson, Sheridan Nurseries president at the time, graciously offered to donate and ship 256 Canadian Sugar Maple Trees to Fort Campbell. In September 1986, I had the privilege of speaking with over 1000 soldiers and family members in a service that dedicated a new forest of Canadian Sugar Maples as a living memorial for these soldiers.
SN: How has the memorial affected loved ones and soldiers?
Janice: I didn’t realize how much of an impact the trees had had until twenty-five years later when a family trip took us near the base. We decided to show our four kids what their mom had been part of as a teenager. They had heard the stories, but it was a thrill to show them the forest of trees up close.
At the security gate, the guard asked me the purpose of my visit to Fort Campbell. I told her I wanted to show my kids the trees I’d helped plant 25 years earlier. She dropped her pen, her eyes welled up with tears, and she said, “My cousin was on that plane. Not a day goes by when I drive by those trees and don’t think about him. Thank you for doing what you did”.
This moment reconnected me with the base, as the leadership had changed many times over the years. They invited me back for the 30th anniversary, and Sheridan Nurseries graciously partnered with me that year to get me from BC to Fort Campbell. I was invited back again in 2019 to Fort Campbell to dedicate this new forest of trees. Sheridan Nurseries leaned in to make it possible to be there; I am so grateful.
SN: How has being involved with this memorial influenced your life over the last 34 years?
Janice: I was in the media a lot for that first year when this happened. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney honoured me in his office and President Ronald Reagan included me in a telegram. In 1987 I was chosen as the Junior Citizen of Ontario.
I went off to university in BC, and life moved on. I married, we had four kids, and I didn’t talk about the story much for fear people would think I was bragging. After having kids, I realized the value of sharing the story to inspire young people that they can make a difference. This realization gave me the courage to share the story.
SN: What made the 34th anniversary of the Gander Memorial at Fort Campbell so memorable?
Janice: The 34th memorial was significant because we dedicated a new forest of trees. I didn’t know they would want me to be part of this new planting, but family member after a family member told me that if it weren’t for me and this vision to plant a tree for each soldier, they wouldn’t have had a proper place to remember their loved ones.
Major General Burton Patrick was the leader of the army post when the crash happened. After this recent memorial, I learned that he was retired in Georgia. The first thing I did when I got back to Canada was to search for him. I found a number and called, not sure if I had the right home. I did. He is now 85 years old, and he retired after serving 33 years in the military. He said that the two years surrounding Fort Campbell and the Gander crash were by far the hardest. It took two years to bury all the bodies. He said it was Ronald Reagan and me who gave him hope to carry on when it felt overwhelming. I had no idea. I never thought I’d hear my name and Ronald Reagan’s in the same sentence!
I never dreamt in a million years that after 34 years, I’d still be connected to Fort Campbell. I didn’t know the trees had had such an impact. Every family member received a bowl made of the Canadian Sugar Maple trees that were initially donated by Sheridan Nurseries.
Many years ago, Janice blogged about the story. You can read it here: http://janicenikkel.blogspot.com/2010/08/fort-campbell-25-years-later.html)