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'The most terrifying moment': 26 years later, Minnesota vet still battles effects of helicopter crash in Alaskan wilderness

Tom Krabbenhoft of Moorhead lives daily with a bad back and other chronic problems, physical and mental, caused by surviving a helicopter crash while serving with the North Dakota National Guard 26 years ago. David Samson / Forum News Service

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Every year around this time, retired military man Tom Krabbenhoft starts feeling even more anxious than usual.

On Oct. 11, 1992, he and 16 other servicemen cheated death when the Chinook CH-47 helicopter they were in crashed in the Alaskan wilderness.

Krabbenhoft was a 26-year-old North Dakota Army National Guard soldier at the time, anxious to get home after wrapping up a week-long air defense drill.

Faced with a long, bumpy truck ride to the base in Anchorage, he was thrilled to learn a helicopter on site was headed in the same direction and had room for a passenger.

The ride would forever change his life. Though the anniversary of the crash is especially hard to deal with, he said he finds himself "in that helicopter" often.

"You almost got to make this decision to get out of it every day," Krabbenhoft said, referring to the aftermath of a traumatic event.

News coverage of the crash was limited. An article in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that appeared weeks later, on Nov. 8, 1992, had no photo of the crash site. It said the helicopter was enroute to Fort Richardson when it went down in a dense forest 40 miles from Anchorage.

Surprisingly, "they all walked away with minor injuries," the news article said.

Krabbenhoft spent one night in an Anchorage hospital for observation before heading home.

He thought he was fine, and within two days, was back at his job at a food processing plant. But soon, physical injuries and emotional scars would emerge — and at age 52, he battles them to this day.

"It's hard not to jump down that rabbit hole sometimes," he said.

Flying objects

Before boarding the helicopter that day, Krabbenhoft helped the crew chief load up an unusual mix of supplies — mortar rounds and mortar fuses, along with cases of cereal and milk.

Once the helicopter was packed, he took a seat next to a large window. He had his camera with him, and planned to take photos of the rugged scenery.

The chopper lifted off the ground, and he was amazed by the noise and spectacle.

"The power is just — I mean, you can't describe it," he said.

They flew a bit before landing at a site to drop off the mortar rounds and fuses. Once back in the air, Krabbenhoft was enjoying the view, taking photos, when suddenly the helicopter stalled and began to rotate — slowly, at first, then picking up speed.

When a rucksack flew past his window outside, he knew something was terribly wrong. He'd neglected to strap into a harness after boarding, so he was thrown to the floor of the aircraft.

Suddenly, he was pelted by flying objects that took a moment to identify.

The boxes of cereal they had loaded — Honey Nut Cheerios, to be exact — were flying about.

"I'm in the most terrifying moment of my life, and I go, 'God, I hate those,'" Krabbenhoft said, referring to the cereal and recognizing the absurdity of the moment.

Like 'the afterlife'

Then came what Krabbenhoft thought were explosions. It was actually the helicopter's rotors, snapping off trees in its path.

He doesn't recall the impact, specifically, but remembers feeling doom, regret and anger that his life was going to end this way. Calm and stillness came over him briefly, "like a little bit of the afterlife," he said.

Snapping back to reality, he saw smoke and fire and heard people screaming. The helicopter's fire suppression system took care of the flames. Everyone escaped the wreckage, although some people needed quite a bit of help in doing so.

As Krabbenhoft walked away, he could feel something banging against his leg. Was it his hand, broken or dislocated? He was afraid to look down.

It was his camera, still on his wrist. He asked a fellow survivor to snap a photo with the smoldering wreckage behind him.

Another helicopter arrived to rescue the group. Krabbenhoft said he later learned that the crash was likely due to a mechanical failure.

Lasting injuries

Exposure to jet fuel and fire suppression chemicals damaged Krabbenhoft's skin and lungs, and his lingering injuries include back, shoulder and hip problems.

He left the Army Guard for the Air National Guard when the injuries became more bothersome, and he retired from the military in 2010.

Krabbenhoft receives holistic treatments, including dry needling and acupuncture, he said.

Most troubling to him is that he's never been able to speak with anyone who was on the helicopter that day.

Since he was sort of "hitching a ride," he didn't know any of the servicemen on board. He said it would be nice to be able to compare notes and thoughts with others.

Even though he's left with chronic pain and difficult memories, Krabbenhoft is glad to be a survivor.

"You know, I'm very lucky to be here," he said.

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