It might have been a matter of luck, just sitting in the right seat at the right time. Private John Toole of Montgomery, Alabama, says he was very lucky and escaped from the crash of the Flying Tiger with no injuries at all and relatively little trauma.
Toole was sitting several rows behind the window exits over the wing. After impact, he had to get out of his center seat to get to the aisle. That went without incident while many seats around him had broken off. From the aisle, he saw troopers trying to release the emergency window on the left side of the plan and he moved quickly to help.He was one of the first four to five passengers to get out. The left was the leeward side of the aircraft. The right side was buffeted by the full force of the wind during those horrendous first minutes prior to the Tiger sinking.
As he jumped out the window exit, Toole could see others working to inflate the rubber life raft that had come out the rear door. A moment of panic struck, however, the instant he hit the ice cold water. He could not find the cords to inflate his life vest.
As with a number of others, the inflate cords of the life vest were not found at the waist as had been routinely demonstrated by fight attendants and expected under normal conditions. That one thing alone was a cause for panic upon hitting the ice-cold turbulent water.
Toole frantically reached for help from the closest trooper who was struggling for his own life. Initially Toole was pushed away, but in an instant, the struggling trooper gained his senses and recognized Toole and he went back to help. Upon hitting the water, the inflate cords were pushed upward, around the neck. Once found, they could be pulled and the life vest inflated.
The un-inflated life raft was still in sight, but looked like just a bundle of lifeless material. Several troopers were working with Navigator Sam Nelson to get it open and inflated. Toole swam directly to them and the raft inflated right in front of him. He immediately climbed in and began helping others pull survivors to safety.
An advantage to being early in and helping others is that he was able to claim a small space of his own where he sat with his back to the rubber sides of the raft. He was able to keep his legs out from under any others and escaped the burns and pressure sores caused by rubbing against neighboring bodies, especially for those toward the middle.
Toole says his memories of the agonizing six hours in the life raft are still fresh and vivid, but in other ways those memories are very vague and distant. He remembers most the freezing cold and the brightness of the moon. The crewmen on the Swiss rescue ship were wonderful, he says, and made him feel very much at home. He stayed with the ship until it docked at Antwerp.
Meanwhile in his home town of Montgomery, Alabama, his wife and parents had received word of the crash and his survival, but no word from him. He was able to call from the hotel in Antwerp.
Once settled in Germany at his assigned post, he said he had very little feedback from anyone in the Army about the crash. He was just one of the troopers. But about six months after the incident he was approached by an insurance representative and offered a settlement of $2,000. He and another survivor in his unit got advice from the Army adjutant and they decided to jump on it.
Toole said that for as tragic as the incident was, the $2,000 was something of a “God-send.” That was because the Army had a rule about soldiers bringing their spouses over to Germany from the states. The soldier had to prove the ready availability of $500 in the bank before the Army would approve. The soldier had to be able to pay to send the wife back if necessary. The $2,000 made it possible. Of course he had no money by that point in time left over out of his Army pay.
His military training was in communications and he worked on a “patch panel “truck. He had more than a year of college credits from the University of Alabama before going into the service. After discharge, once the GI Bill for veterans education went into effect, he seized the opportunity and enrolled at the University of West Florida at Pennsicola, where he had been working at a chemical plant. He majored in physics and math, going into computer technology after graduation.
Toole says one of the most significant changes in his life came in his late 30s when he discovered long distance running. It is still his passion at age 70. He feels very fortunate to have his health.