ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN, Maine – After surviving a deadly B-52 bomber crash and a night on a frozen mountainside, Gerald Adler, injured and frostbitten, could recall only the red handlebar mustache of his rescuer.
For the first time in 50 years, the retired Air Force captain came face-to-face with the mustachioed medic, Eugene Slabinski, who dropped from a helicopter to rescue him and the only other survivor after a night in 5 feet of snow in the wilderness of northern Maine.
The two gripped each other in a bear hug Saturday.
"He doesn't have the red moustache anymore," Adler joked, pointing out Slabinski's snow white hair.
The long-delayed meeting was a bright spot in a somber observance as 75 people joined Adler, 81, and Slabinski, 83, on Memorial Day weekend to remember the Cold War tragedy that occurred when their B-52 bomber encountered turbulence strong enough to snap off the vertical stabilizer, causing it to crash onto the side of Elephant Mountain on Jan. 24, 1963.
Seven crew members died. Adler survived along with the pilot, Lt. Col. Dan Bulli, after spending 20 hours on the mountainside as the temperature plummeted to more than 20 below.
A pained Adler said he had mixed emotions. He survived while others died. He raised a family and is now a grandfather living in Davis, Calif. Other families lost sons, fathers, brothers, uncles in the crash.
It was supposed to be a routine low-level training flight to test ground-avoidance radar.
Powered by eight jet engines, the B-52 Stratofortress flew north from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts before being buffeted by gusts coming off mountains in western Maine. Eventually, the turbulence became severe, and there was a loud bang. The B-52 crashed seconds later.
Only three crew members had time to eject.
Bulli ended up dangling in a tree 30 feet above the ground. The deep snow saved Adler's life after his parachute failed to deploy and he crashed to the ground in his ejection seat. The co-pilot also ejected but smashed into a tree. Six others went down with the aircraft.
The B-52 crash in Maine and another one six days later in New Mexico helped to reveal a structural weakness that caused the vertical stabilizer to snap off under certain conditions.
Slabinski, of Hanover Township, Pa., was part of the crew of the first rescue helicopter on the scene the following morning. He dropped to the snowy terrain to get Bulli, then Adler, both of whom were hoisted to safety.
He was happy to find two survivors. He recalled seeing Bulli first because he'd deployed an inflatable raft. He gave him morphine for his injured foot. Adler, though, was in worse condition with severe frostbite, broken ribs and a fractured skull. He was unconscious for five days and eventually his leg was amputated because of gangrene.
Bulli, 90, of Omaha, Neb., was unable to attend Saturday's event. He had specially engraved lighters sent to the five helicopter crew members at Otis Air Force Base, telling them in a note, "Thanks for the lift."
Slabinski still has his.
Saturday's remembrance included an event at the Moosehead Riders snowmobile club house in Greenville, followed by a rain-soaked event at the crash site, still strewn with debris. The families of three crew members participated, along with several rescuers who used snowmobiles and snowshoes to reach it.
Adler said the crash underscored that military service can be a deadly business, even in peacetime.
"Deaths don't always occur in combat. This is a noncombat situation, a combat simulation. That's why we were down so low. And seven men died. And people die all the time, and it's not just Vietnam, or Korea or World War II. Just give thanks that people are willing to give a portion of their lives over to help serve their country," he said.