The F-16 single-seat fighter jet went down near the north end of Lake Okeechobee 150 miles north of Miami on a sultry morning on the last day of June 1999.
The pilot, Air Force Reserve Maj. Samuel D’Angelo III of Key Largo, was an American Airlines pilot and the flight commander for the 93rd Fighter Squadron at Homestead Air Reserve Base.
Within moments, duty pagers 100 miles away at Patrick Air Force Base began summoning individuals from the base clinic: mental health, mortuary affairs, civil engineering, the base chapel where I was serving, among others. These individuals composed the battle staff that would be responsible for planning a pilot rescue or recovering the remains of the pilot.
Early reports from the battle staff sadly indicated this mission would be the recovery of a body.
As the base responsible for search and recovery, our teams loaded supplies into vehicles and drove them within a few hundred yards of the crash site. At first, we scanned the area hoping against hope that we’d find the miraculous sign of a parachute.
But the scattered debris made the tragic results painfully obvious. The pilot had been performing maneuvers that required the plane to dip so low he likely encountered the lazy gliding of a turkey vulture. When he crashed, his plane slashed a mile-long swath through Florida swampland. There would be no parachute.
Recovery was a dirty job, and I found myself gripped with childhood fears of snakes and swamp animals. From a distance, we heard a mother alligator indicating her willingness to defend her babies. Occasionally, swamp water filled our waders as the medical folks warned about the heat index, waterborne pathogens and water moccasins.
We sifted through the mud and water, desperately praying to find the intact body of our comrade so that we might lovingly return him to his family. Instead, we found ourselves searching in more minute detail. We were looking for anything that resembled human anatomy.
When something was found, a call would ring out: “Find!” People stopped. Reverence held us still. The mortuary affairs officer stepped forward to determine whether the find was organic and needed to be placed in the flag-draped ice chest.
Finally, at the end of the first day, we came to a place where we discovered the majority of the remains. It was there I stopped the team for a prayer. I stopped there because I wanted Maj. D’Angelo’s family to know we did this job in reverent remembrance of a fallen hero.
My prayer contained two requests. The first part called back a portion of a sonnet familiar to nearly everyone in the flying community. It’s called “High Flight,” and it was written by Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee before his death in 1941. Magee finishes the poem with a famous line:
“I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God”
But the second part of the prayer hit us more deeply. For while Maj. Samuel D’Angelo had indeed touched the face of God, our team had miraculously become the hands of God.