It was 30 years ago when it happened.
Four MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters departed from Hill Air Force Base and headed for Michael Army Airfield at Dugway Proving Ground as part of a routine joint training exercise on Oct. 29, 1992.
Over the Great Salt Lake the helicopters encountered torrential rain, lightning and heavy cloud cover that obscured vision causing one of the aircraft to crash into the lake. It burst into flames on impact killing 12 of the 13 people onboard.
The one survivor was rescued by three U.S. Army Rangers that paddled over half a mile in the cold water of the lake in an inflatable raft through a rain and sleet storm with flames burning on the open water.
A memorial to the fatal fight and the men that lost their lives was constructed in 1994 on the Antelope Island causeway not far from where the helicopter went down.
The memorial included plaques that told the story of that dark evening along with photographs of the 12 men that lost their lives in the crash — including five Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment and seven airmen from the 1st Special Operations Air Wing.
Geoffrey Hitchcock had two friends, fellow military buddies, that lost their lives in the crash. Hitchcock lives in the Florida panhandle and makes regular business trips to Salt Lake City.
While on a trip to Salt Lake City in June 2022, Hitchcock decided to visit the memorial.
“I had been to Salt Lake City on business several times and knew the memorial was out there [on Antelope Island] but I had never been out to see it,” Hitchcock said. “This time I decided to go out and see it.”
Hitchcock said he was disappointed in what he found.
“It was in a sad state of disrepair,” he said. “Weathered and worn … I thought ‘This isn’t how these men should be remembered.’”
Hitchcock went home with the intent to find a way to clean the monument and restore it as a fit memorial to the 12 men who gave their lives that evening.
A friend put Hitchcock in touch with the Combat Control Foundation, an organization that provides support to combat controllers and their families. The seven airmen that lost their lives that night were combat controllers.
The next thing Hitchcock knew, with the help of the Combat Control Foundation, other organizations were pulled in to help, funds were being raised, donations accepted, and plans for a restoration and a ceremony on the 30th anniversary of the fateful flight were made.
The Combat Control Foundation, Air Commando Association, Combat Control Association, 75th Ranger Regiment Association, Three Rangers Association and US Army Ranger Association were among the groups that hosted the Oct. 29, 2022 memorial service. The Hardrock Charlie Foundation, Teal Drones and others donated towards the memorial’s restoration.
With funds raised, the organizing group hired Precious Stone and Monument Restoration of Grantsville, owned by Susan Hogan Orifici along with her mother and business partner, Madge Hogan Millward, to do the restoration work.
Orifici started a cleaning business 18 years ago. She did a lot of work for Dugway and final touch clean up work for Atherton Construction.
“During this time we had multiple people reach out to us to clean headstones,” Orfici said. “Over time I realized they needed more than just stripping of hard water. That’s when I started experimenting on my dad’s headstone and my families where I have come to this point. “
Three years ago Orifici opened Precious Stones, taking advantage of her 18 years experience cleaning headstones.
Working on the memorial site for the helicopter crash was a monumental job for Orifici’s business, but Hitchcock said he was well pleased when he saw their work.
“We made four or five trips out to Antelope Island,” Orifici said. “We had to remove all the old paint, cover the monument with primer, repaint everything and then cover it all with sealant and protectants.”
The photos of the 12 men, originally done in vinyl, were redone in porcelain.
“It was a spiritual experience,” Orifici said. “After reading the story of the men on the monument and working on the site I was really touched.”
The families and friends of the 12 men come from all over the world and gather on the site every year on the night this happened in remembrance of their fallen loved ones, according to Orifici.
“I too will be part of this after this project,” she said. “They are also my fallen brothers as well.”
In remembrance of: U.S. Army Ranger Spc. Jeremy B. Bird, U.S. Air Force SrA Derek C. Hughes, U.S. Army Ranger Col. John T. Keneally, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven W. Kelley, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Philip Kesler, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Mark G. Lee, U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. Blaine Mishak, U.S. Army Ranger 1st Sgt. Harvey L. Moore, Jr., U.S. Air Force Capt. Michael Nazionale, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Peixotto, U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Marck Scholl, and U.S. Army Ranger Lt. Col. Kenneth Strauss.