By Jen RodriguezJuly 31, 2008
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- "You're still on fire!" are four distinct words that Staff Sgt. Randall Scharmen clearly remembers.
The words were from an unidentified Soldier who rushed to Scharmen's rescue and ultimately saved his life during a fatal crash March 23, 1994 at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. The crash claimed 23 Soldiers' lives. A year later, another Soldier died.
The incident occurred when an F-16 attempted to land at Pope AFB and collided with a C-130 cargo plane. Plummeting to the ground, the F-16 crashed into a parked C-141 cargo plane, where an aircrew escaped unharmed. However, the F-16 deflected toward the mock doors by the parked aircraft, where jumpers were going through pre-jump training.
On that day, Sgt. Maj. Brian Whelan, then a staff sergeant with the 2/505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, was at Pope AFB taking a Jumpmaster course.
Across the way was Scharmen, a squad leader in an anti-tank platoon, jumping with members of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in his first jump.
Standing at the first aircraft training mock-up, one of the safeties pointed and yelled, "Crash, crash, crash!" after seeing the crash in progress, said Scharmen.
"The fuselage of the plane rolled through our group and subsequently caused massive injuries to all involved," said Whelan. "My first reaction was to hit the ground and then after receiving minor injuries I went into rescue and help mode to aid my fellow paratroopers."
Scharmen turned and saw the spinning fuselage with orange flames shooting out the back heading in his group's general direction.
"There was a split-second delay to process what we were witnessing, and then all of us picked a direction and ran," Scharmen said. "My feet carried me along the line of mock doors when two seconds later I found myself on fire."
Scharmen said there was a moment of "freak-out" as the flames licked up his back onto his head and face. "At some point I realized I had to drop and did my best to smother the flames. I thought incorrectly," he said. "I got up to run out of the area."
Then Whelan yelled, "You're still on fire!"
Whelan wrestled Scharmen to the ground for more than 10 seconds to put out the flames, and then he disappeared to help the others.
"I never knew who he was and had never seen him again until recently," said the 82nd Airborne Division's casualty liaison in support of the Global War on Terrorism at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Until 14 years later, when Scharmen met Whelan, security plans and operations sergeant major, at BAMC.
"I came to his office because I needed his signature to get a BAMC identification card," Scharmen said.
Because they were both 82nd Airborne, they had something in common and eventually realized their deeper connection.
"Since the day of the accident, I have only been able to give a heartfelt thanks to all those folks who were involved with my health care," said Scharmen, who sustained 34 percent burns to his face, head, hands, arms, back, buttocks and calves. "To actually find one of the first responders is a rare gift.
"Hero and heroic are words that I would choose to describe Sgt. Maj. Whelan. A real hero doesn't know he's a hero and that will always be true," he said. "A real hero is one who has to be told that he is one, even though he doesn't believe it."
Although Whelan shies away from being called a hero, that March day changed him completely.
"It scarred me to see my brothers killed in front of me and although I helped many that day, to see how fragile life is made me feel helpless but also gave me a different perspective on the importance of being a good medic and more importantly a better human being," said the sergeant major. "I still wonder what if' How could I have done things better' They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That's a lie, what doesn't kill you makes you more aware of how precious life is."
For his bravery, Whelan was awarded the Soldier's Medal, given for heroism in peacetime.
"I have been told that (I'm a hero) before and I have a hard time accepting it," said Whelan. "I think all Soldiers if put in that situation would hopefully react to save their brothers and sisters regardless of danger.
"I never thought I would see any of the folks that I physically put hands on but to this day, I have a hard time dealing with that day. Meeting and sharing with Staff Sgt. Scharmen has not only been a good experience, but also a healing experience," said Whelan.
Scharmen said Whelan's 10 seconds of action had far-reaching consequences on his life.
"I was able to live, that is the primary consequence. As a result of living, I was able to meet my wife, Jenny, whom I've been married 12 years." They have two sons, Alex and Will.
"I've been able to serve honorably in different capacities within the Army and just lately as a liaison, helping Soldiers in whatever way I can," he said.
Scharmen accepted the position as a liaison to "pay back" BAMC for helping him and his fellow Soldiers.
"Now I have benefitted again by thanking the man who made all this possible," he said.