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Stories of devastating loss and heroism emerged from the B-17 bomber crash at Bradley International Airport

Bradley International Airport (JJBers/Flickr)

An East Granby woman watched as her husband’s “bucket-list” vintage airplane flight erupted into a fireball.

Seconds later, an injured Simsbury volunteer firefighter and Air National Guardsman aboard the doomed aircraft donned his military-issued, flame retardant flight gloves and threw open an escape hatch for survivors.

And a Winsted construction worker at the airport helped free workers from a burning building after the fiery crash.

Stories of devastating loss, selflessness and heroism emerged after Wednesday’s fatal crash of a B-17 World War II-era bomber at Bradley International Airport.

Amid the chaos and tragedy of the crash that killed seven people, bystanders and passengers alike sprang into action, likely saving the lives of the plane’s six survivors.

State troopers who interviewed survivors said that employees at the airport ran to the burning plane to help passengers get out. A construction worker helped apply tourniquets to injured passengers, and a passenger pushed through the pain of broken bones to help others onboard escape the burning aircraft.

While seven lives were lost, these acts of heroism kept others alive.

Here are some of their stories:

The Construction Worker

Robert Bullock was back to work on a construction job at Bradley International Airport on Thursday, but the deadly crash was still very much on his mind.

Bullock had been mixing concrete near the airport’s de-icing shed when he heard a massive boom. He looked up, and about 200 feet away, the plane and the front half of the canvas-covered shed were engulfed in flames.

Bullock, with years of experience as a volunteer firefighter, said he instinctively knew what he had to do. He ran to make sure none of his coworkers were in two office trailers nearby.

That’s when he heard a voice coming from inside the rear portion of the shed.

“I heard someone hollering, ‘Help, help, I’m dying. Somebody help me. Get me out of here’ numerous times,” Bullock, of Winsted, recalled in an interview at the airport. “And I jumped the fence to attempt to get him out of the building that was on fire.”

Bullock grabbed a pocketknife and started cutting into the canvas. Two workers were able to get out of the building “a little bit further from where I was cutting.”

Bullock turned to leave when he noticed a man and a woman lying on the ground about 40 feet from the plane, “all bloodied and whatnot.”

He stayed with them until medical personnel arrived on the scene and helped to apply a tourniquet. He said the man and woman had escaped the plane, but he didn’t know their story.

“I just kept them talking so they didn’t pass out,” he said.

The Firefighter

When the plane crashed, 54-year-old James Traficante, a five-year member of the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department and a chief master sergeant in the Connecticut Air National Guard, was able to open the plane’s hatch and help pull out a few passengers.

A spokesman for the National Guard said Traficante had brought his military-issued, flame retardant flight gloves with him, which allowed him to handle the flame-scorched metal.

Traficante was injured — sources said he suffered at least one broken arm and a broken collarbone in the crash — and was treated at Hartford Hospital. He was discharged later in the day, the Guard said.

As an aircrew member, Traficante has training and experience in handling aircraft emergencies, the news release said.

Traficante’s heroic act was honored by Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday during a speech at a labor convention at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

“This guy’s arm was mangled, and he kicked out the door, and he pulled one or two folks out of there who wouldn’t otherwise be with us today,” Lamont said. “That’s where I saw that the Connecticut family is sticking together.”

‘This doesn’t bode well’

As the plane took off, family members exchanged final messages with the plane’s passengers.

Robert Ridell texted his wife Debra: “This doesn’t bode well, the pilot shut off the engine and has left his seat,” as he waited for the B-17 to take off. She reassured him that crews were working on getting the engines working.

By the time the flight took off, 40 minutes behind schedule, Ridell had posted a photo of the cockpit of the plane’s interior to Facebook.

“I told him I loved him,” Debra Ridell said in an interview. “They started to taxi away, and everything appeared to be OK.”

Debra Ridell said she watched as the plane skirted around from the south to approach the runway.

“A few seconds later I heard a very loud noise and saw a fireball and smoke,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it had crashed.”

His wedding band was found in the wreckage — a small consolation for his grieving family, said Jessica Darling, his stepdaughter.

Rob Ridell loved history, his wife said.

For their honeymoon, the Riddells traveled to Hawaii so Rob could visit Pearl Harbor, his wife said. For a 60th birthday celebration, they planned a trip to Normandy, so that Rob could view the beaches where Allied soldiers stormed ashore on D-Day to begin to wrest control of Europe from the Nazis.

The trip aboard the B-17 was on his bucket list, and Debra Riddell was at Bradley to capture video of the special experience.

“This was something he really wanted to do,” she said.


© 2019 The Hartford Courant