The three men sat on a back row Friday during a memorial ceremony honoring the soldiers who died 25 years ago on Green Ramp at what is now Pope Army Airfield.
They listened as the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division asked the families of those killed and those who were injured to stand.
Then Maj. Gen. James Mingus asked others who were impacted by the accident to stand.
The three men stayed in their chairs even though they are closely connected to the accident that killed 24 soldiers and injured more than 100 others.
Jose Raices and Adam Zaret were pilots on the C-130 Hercules cargo plane that was clipped by an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet near the runway of what was then known as Pope Air Force Base. Gary Gerlach was a loadmaster on the cargo plane.
Raices said the men were at the ceremony out of respect for those who died.
"I didn't even want to think about standing up," he said. "We had it easy."
The collision knocked off the nose of the fighter jet. After the pilot and another man on board ejected, the jet smashed into the tarmac and slid into a C-141 Starlifter transport jet that was loaded with 55,000 gallons of fuel.
A massive fireball with burning metal shrapnel tore through hundreds of paratroopers who were nearby getting ready for a jump.
Soldiers used their bodies to shield others from the blast. After it passed, those who were able tried to help those who were badly hurt.
Survivors were loaded into Humvees and personal vehicles and rushed to Womack Army Medical Center.
At the hospital, emergency officials had about five minutes warning before the first injured soldiers arrived. Nurses, doctors and medics used a grassy area outside the emergency room as a triage area where they decided which soldiers needed care first.
The two dozen deaths were the most in a single day for the 82nd Airborne Division since the Battle of the Bulge.
Investigators placed most of the blame for the crash on air-traffic controllers, but also said the F-16 pilot, Joseph Jacyno, was partly at fault.
Friday was the first time that Raices, Zaret and Gerlach have been together since the accident in March 1994. An interview after the ceremony was the first time Raices and Zaret have spoken publicly about what happened.
"The last 25 years, I've been replaying it in my mind," Raices said.
Raices was the lead pilot for a mission early on the morning of March 23, 1994. The C-130 was one of three planes dropping loads that simulated heavy equipment on a drop zone at Fort Bragg. After the drop, an indicator showed that the ramp on the back of the plane wasn't locked.
The crew returned to Pope to have maintenance workers check the ramp. They said the ramp was locked, but the indicator continued to show that it wasn't. The plane couldn't be used for any more drops that day.
Zaret, who had recently returned from duty in Europe, needed some "left seat" time as the lead pilot on the plane. He and Raices, who was an instructor pilot, switched seats so Zaret could do some "touch and goes" on the runway.
After Zaret performed the maneuver several times, he lined the C-130 up with the runway again. He said they could hear the tower talking to the pilot of the fighter jet.
"I'm looking out clearing for traffic," he said. "I don't see any airplane."
Raices said he thought something might not be right when the controllers started using terminology he hadn't heard before.
"That was my first clue," he said.
As the C-130 approached the runway, an air traffic controller suddenly told Zaret to turn right.
The plane was about 300 feet off the ground and about a quarter mile from the runway, Raices said. Zaret was about to use the yoke to make the turn when the crew felt the fighter jet hit the C-130.
"It was right at that second," said Zaret, who initially thought an engine had exploded.
Raices was looking to the right out of one of 23 windows in the C-130's cockpit as Zaret was about to turn the plane in that direction. He saw the F-16 sideways beneath the cargo plane's right wing before it leveled off and accelerated past.
Zaret also saw the jet.
"To this day, I can still picture it," he said.
The jolt of the impact yanked the yoke forward violently, slammed it back into the laps of Zaret and Raices, and then forward again.
Zaret said the movements of the yoke only took about two seconds.
"It seems like a long time when it's happening," he said.
Raices grabbed the yoke and said, "I've got the aircraft," indicating he was taking control of the plane.
Raices, Zaret and Gerlach saw the fighter jet hit the ground and slam into the C-141. Then they saw the fireball spread into the staging area where the paratroopers were. The mushroom cloud from the explosion rose 400 to 500 feet high, Raices said.
Raices immediately decided that the crew needed to focus their attention on the plane they were in.
"Not that we could even imagine what was going on," he said. "It's unimaginable."
Gerlach went to the back of the plane to see if he could see any damage.
The elevator on one side of the C-130's tail was knocked off, but Gerlach didn't have any way to see it. The elevator controls the up and down motion on the nose of a plane.
"I felt since the airplane was still flying at the time, there wasn't anything wrong with the wing," Gerlach said.
Raices planned to fly the plane over a nearby lake so the crew could assess the aircraft's condition. He didn't want it over a populated area if it went down.
When Raices increased the C-130's speed, it began to shake.
Gerlach said the sensation was similar to riding in a large vehicle as it hits holes in a road.
The pilots didn't know what was wrong.
"At this point, we're test pilots," Raices said.
He decided to get the plane on the ground as soon as possible.
"It wasn't perfect, but it was flyable," Raices said.
Zaret called the Pope tower and said the C-130 needed to land. Controllers initially said the runway was closed, but Zaret told the tower that the plane had an emergency and needed to land.
The tower cleared the plane to land.
On the ground, the three men and two others onboard evacuated and looked at the plane. Initially, nothing looked out of the ordinary.
A towing crew headed toward the plane. Raices, Zaret and Gerlach could hear the crew's exclamatory cursing as they got closer to the C-130.
The men walked to the other side of the plane and saw the damaged elevator.
"That's when my legs started shaking, when I saw the missing elevator and debris hanging from the tail section," Raices said.
The men kissed the ground, joined hands and thanked God they were alive, Gerlach said.
Then they saw the carnage on the other side of the runway.
"It really dawned on me how awful this was," Zaret said.
The men said they spent the next 12 hours answering questions and taking drug tests.
Gerlach said he stops to think about the crash at 2:14 p.m. every March 23.
"I personally take time to ponder on it," he said.
Raices said he thinks about the accident every year.
"This year, I thought it was finally time for us to get together," he said. "We decided it's about time for us to deal with the fact that we were here 25 years ago."
Raices said he's glad that the men came back and went to the ceremony.
"It was something I needed to do," he said.
The men talked with survivors of the accident. Raices said they were worried they might face some anger because of their role in the accident.
"That was my biggest fear," he said.
Instead, the soldiers who were on Green Ramp told the pilots they did a good job of not making a terrible situation worse.
"It was a great crew effort," Raices said. "Training really kicked in."
"You just fall into what you're trained to do," Zaret added.
Raices, who now lives in Denton, Texas, had planned to stay in the Air Force, but after he was passed over for promotion, he got out of the military in April 1995. Two weeks later, he was hired as a pilot by United Airlines.
Zaret left Pope in 1996 to go to Hurlburt Field in Florida, where he flew AC-130 gunships. After leaving the Air Force in 2000, he became a pilot for Delta Airlines and now lives in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Gerlach praised Raices and Zaret for their actions.
"In my opinion, because of the awareness of these two pilots, I'm still here," he said.
Gerlach said the Air Force should have recognized the pilots for their efforts to land the plane.
"I felt they were cheated," he said.
Even though the C-130 was effectively at the wrong place at the wrong time, the pilots still wonder about the accident.
"It's hard not to think, 'Could I have done something differently?'" Zaret said.
"I wish I could have done something different," Raices said.
This article is written by Steve DeVane from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.