Langley’s Janice Nikkel never expect that a memorial project for a deadly air crash on the East Coast created when she was a teenager would still resonate in her life.
In December, she flew out to an American military base in Kentucky to take part in a re-dedication ceremony of new trees that replaced the memorial grove she originally started to honour 256 Americans who died in the largest single aviation disaster on Canadian soil.
“Words can’t describe the experience but amazing,” Nickkel said.
On Dec. 12, 1985, a total of 256 American soldiers and crew members died when their plane crashed in Gander, Nfld., on its way home from peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula.
“I was just a 15 when it happened, not paying much attention to the news,” Nikkel said. “But then my mom shared that this accident was like 10 classrooms at my high school with each person having someone die in their family, right before Christmas. She said, this is what it would have been like for these families, all from the same army base. The story hit home. I asked her what Canadians were doing to show we cared?”
Nikkel, living in Oakville at the time wrote to the Toronto Star newspaper to say she would donate her babysitting money to start a fund to plant memorial trees for each person who died.
The idea snowballed. Wire services picked it up and media started calling. Even neighbours vacationing in Mexico heard about the Canadian teen.
“My heart was to show our American neighbours that we as Canadians truly care,” she said.
The story brought forward others willing to help.
Frank Lockyear, whose company has done tree planting in the Mount St. Helen’s area after the volcanic eruption, contacted the 101st Airborne Division which offered an acre of land for a memorial grove. Canadian firm Sheridan Nurseries shipped 256 Canadian Sugar Maples to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
She was invited to the dedication ceremony in 1986 where she spoke in front of more than 1,000 soldiers and their families in Kentucky. They made her an honourary member of the Airborne.
In the intervening years, she ended up married with a family on the West Coast and in 2011, the Nikkel family visited the site.
“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 trees up close,” Nikkel said. “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’.”
The original trees have since been cut down due to age, but even then care and consideration were shown.
“They have made them into bowls and pens, and have given them to families of the fallen soldiers (and me). It was very special,” she said.
The American military flew Nikkel to Kentucky in December, but Sheridan Nurseries, which donated the original trees, helped cover the costs of her expenses while there.
“It was special to see this company still wanted to be involved,” she added.
Before her December trip, she reached out to the office of new Langley MP Tako Van Popta who provided Canada flag pins for her to give others.
“The families and soldiers loved receiving a little piece of Canada from me,” Nikkel said.
She had visited for the 30th anniversary of the crash, but her 2019 visit was as a guest speaker and it gave her a chance to see the grove of new memorial trees.
“It was indeed a privilege to be included in this plant, 34 years later. I was made to feel like an honoured guest,” she commented. “While I often felt it was something from ‘back then’, many families told me that the trees gave them a place to remember, and they were so grateful.”