TWRA officers get commendation for helping after October plane crash

By ALLEN MINCEY
Posted 11/26/17

Cleveland's Jon Ellis knew that there was little chance of survivors from a plane crash near the Tellico Hatchery, but he wanted to help efforts to lead U.S. Navy officials to the site. He spent this …

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TWRA officers get commendation for helping after October plane crash

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Cleveland's Jon Ellis knew that there was little chance of survivors from a plane crash near the Tellico Hatchery, but he wanted to help efforts to lead U.S. Navy officials to the site. He spent this Thanksgiving being thankful for not only his family, but his abilities helping the armed forces in the aftermath of the incident.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's Ellis, hatchery manager, and technician Rob Theurer were recently awarded letters of commendation and bronze and silver challenge coins from the U.S. Navy for their assistance with the tragic crash of the U.S T-45 Goshawk near the fish hatchery located in Monroe County.

These awards are presented  to military personnel and civilians who provide an integral role in the completion of a military mission.

TWRA staff assisted in several capacities throughout the recovery efforts for several days in the area’s rough terrain. The Tellico Hatchery served as headquarters for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

Ellis, a graduate of Cleveland State Community College who still resides in Cleveland, was checking for water contamination when he crossed paths with two U.S. Marines.

Ellis stated, “We knew the crash occurred, but we didn’t know how close it was to the hatchery.” With the rough terrain, Marines were working on a route to the crash site. Ellis was able to lead them. 

 “I instantly felt part of a tremendous team with an overwhelmingly important mission," shared Ellis. "Our armed forces consist of remarkable individuals, and I was honored to help them."

Ellis not only led the Marines to the crash site, he and his staff helped over a long week of recovery operations.

Ellis expressed, “Coming across this tragic scene, black hawk helicopters circling above the site and sensing the overwhelming loss was life-changing for me. I have accomplished many things in my life, but being part of this effort and working with our astounding armed forces has affected me like nothing else.”

The 6-year TWRA veteran told the Cleveland Daily Banner that he was proud to be able to help not only the armed forces, but these fallen airmen's families.

"The best way I suppose I could describe it was an overwhelming sense of duty to ensure the fallen airmen were returned home with the highest level of dignity, respect and privacy," he said.

Ellis said that "it's strange the bonds you make with people in the face of tragedy, and I feel if there is any positive aspect to what occurred, it is the lifelong friendships that were made, and the changes that occurred within me personally as I witnessed what I feel is the very best in people.

"Working with such individuals gives one hope in humanity as a whole, which is something that is badly needed in a time when so many senseless tragedies occur," he continued. "I have actually had several of the soldiers and pilots I worked with return and stay with my family over Veterans Day weekend, it was great to see them, and we even had our own early Thanksgiving dinner. "

Yet, Ellis said he knows that his "family" at the TWRA were equally important in the recovery of the airmen, continuing their duties to the hatchery and area, and, in a way, helping him get through the feelings he experienced while working with the armed forces.

"It is important to note that TWRA employees Jessica Matoy, Rob Theurer,  Wilson Tankersley and Freddy Kelly all played pivotal roles in this operation," Ellis said. "Jessica maintained hatchery operations; Rob was essential to establishing transportation routes up the mountain; and Freddy helped mark the trail we used for early access, as well as joined the Forest Service Fire Squad to help put out fires caused by the crash. "

Both Ellis and Theurer were honored by the U.S. Navy for their assistance provided to the armed forces.

Naval Commander, Brian Beaumgaertner shared, “Jon and Rob were pivotal in our response efforts. They allowed our command post to be put up in the confines of the hatchery's land. They helped clear a landing zone for our H-60 Blackhawk support; which allowed us to efficiently and respectfully bring our fallen Aviators off the mountain in the quickest way possible. Jon and Rob know these mountains, valleys, rivers and streams like the back of their hand. This knowledge was pivotal to the recovery effort and still remains important for the environmental cleanup.”

Thoughts of the incident were in Ellis' remembrance of the crash when the annual  Project Healing Waters Tellico River Fishing Event. Although the third year for a Project Healing Waters event, this was the first year that anglers fished the Tellico River. The event was previously held at Green Cove Pond.

This year’s event was held in honor of the two fallen naval aviators, Lt. Patrick “Tank” Ruth and Lt. J.G. Wallace “Hershey” Burch. A moment of silence was held, and Chattanooga Pipes and Drums played a tribute to the fallen airmen. The Hammer 2 Ace Communications Division, Air Force out of Warner Robins, Ga., was also honored and joined the event. U.S. Naval Commander Brian Baumgaertner was presented with a flag that flew over the crash site during recovery efforts.

Veterans from various backgrounds attended. World War II, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans were present. Each veteran was provided with a guide and fished from 8 a.m. to noon. TWRA employees Freddy Kelley, Steve Massengill and Travis Scott treated veterans, volunteers and staff to a tremendous barbecue and chili lunch. Many veterans returned to the river to continue fishing until sundown.

“There are opportunities for veterans to get outside through many avenues including those provided by Operation Healing Waters. We’re honored to provide this occasion,” Ellis said.

Ellis said that he feels he worked with a great group of men and women during the crash aftermath.

"Overall, I feel the people I worked beside during this operation represent Americans at their finest, and our world would be a better place if we all encompassed their bravery, dignity and professionalism," he said.

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