21 prayers: Three years later

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 13, 2004

On Saturday, March 3, 2001, I was trying to sleep in. I was the managing editor of a small Georgia daily newspaper, and I firmly believed that Saturdays mornings belonged to me.

For several days prior to that Saturday, rain had saturated the area. It appeared that the million dollar homes on Lake Blackshear could go underwater.

At about 8:15 a.m. a ringing phone brought me to life.

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I lay there letting it ring, thinking surely my roommate or his fiance would answer it.

When it began to ring again, I got up and shuffled across my bedroom floor and picked up the receiver.

When I answered, I heard the irritating voice of our advertising director, a woman that would surely make a saint curse, and she was blabbering. I heard…golf….carts.. .roofs…gone.

I told her to slow down and let me catch up. Then she said the word I dreadedntornado.

A small tornado had hit her community and she wanted me to cover it.

I quickly began to dress and started paging reporters.

The storms had disrupted the paging devices or something and I realized I was heading out to cover a storm alone.

No problem, I was the newspaper's top news hound.

I went and I covered the story.

Some damage, golf carts obliterated and no injuries.

I felt pretty good.

The editor was unchained from his desk. I was out doing what the reporters normally got to do.

Life was good.

However, the feeling didn't last long.

My cell phone rang and when I answered it, I immediately recognized the local sheriff's voice. He said I needed to get to Unadilla, Ga. ASAP.

I believe his exact words were something to the effect of "break every rule, but just get here."

When I arrived at the scene, one of the deputies waved me through.

The highway was blocked and I still had no clue.

I saw a satellite truck and noticed someone pointing to a field to our right. I got out of the car in the pouring rain and looked towards the field.

That's when I saw the burnt area and the smoke and flames.

"Jay, we've had a national guard plane go down," a deputy said.

"A plane crashed here?" I asked.

There was nothing but a burning pile on the ground.

There was no semblance of a plane from what I could see.

It turned out the plane

crashed in heavy rain, killing all 21 people aboard, police and military officials

quickly began telling us.

The C-23 Sherpa was traveling from Florida to Virginia when it crashed around 10 a.m. near Unadilla, a town about 30 miles south of Macon.

The plane had glided in during pouring rain, broke apart and the witnesses said the plane exploded.

I got the story and rushed back to the office to meet the Sunday paper deadline. I began fielding calls from Time, U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution.

They all wanted my story and my photos.

Like a robot I went through the day.

Late that night it hit me what had happened and I fell apart.

I returned to the crash site the next day, but it had been closed by the military.

I watched through my telephoto lens as they methodically put bodies and body parts into black bags.

Several hours later, with all the victims recovered, the slow processional began past the media checkpoint.

The colonel that served as our spokesman gave a sharp salute and stood perfectly still.

When the last hearse drove by, he brought his hand down and walked away.

I realized he needed to compose himself.

I think we all needed to do that.

As I left the scene that day, a floral bouquet of red, white and blue carnations stood at the

nearby intersection.

Wrapped around it was a black ribbon and a homemade sign read simply, "21 Prayers."

I chose not to run any photos of the body bags the next day.

To me, the flowers and sign summed up what this small farming town was feeling.

We had lost 21 souls

in a soggy Georgia peanut field.

Far too often, journalists rush from one story to the next and we often become calloused to the things we cover.

However, three years later, I'm still haunted by those 21 body bags.

Above that, I remember their sacrifice.

Jay Thomas is managing editor of The Greenville Advocate and can be reached at 382-3111, ext. 136 or via email at jay.thomas@greenvilleadvocate.com.