By: Stefanie Arcangelo, American Red Cross
This year, the American Red Cross in Connecticut and Rhode Island will be hosting a new event called Mission: Possible 2020 on Saturday, March 28, at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford. As part of the event, the Red Cross will be honoring two Community Impact Award Recipients whose actions demonstrate the fundamental principles of the Red Cross. We’d like to introduce you to James Traficante, one of this year’s Community Impact Award recipients.
James Traficante is not a hero, at least not according to him. A Rhode Island native and Connecticut transplant, James has spent his career in public service, first, as a member of the Air National Guard, then as a firefighter in East Providence, Rhode Island. His firefighting career lasted more than 20 years before retiring and returning to a full-time, active duty role with the Air National Guard in Connecticut. Many would say that resume
alone would make him a hero. But to Traficante, his career choices were just jobs, nothing special or heroic about what he does day-to-day. But that all changed on October 2, 2019.
It was a normal day for Traficante, with one notable exception: he was going to check off a bucket list item, flying in a B-17 WWII era aircraft.
“I had discussed with my friend over a period of time, we had talked about it,” said Traficante of the decision to take the flight. “He is a big airplane enthusiast, and obviously, I do it for a living, so I said, ‘yeah, I think it would be cool to go ride on one of those things.’”
Traficante was at work at the Connecticut Air National Guard the morning of the flight, informed his supervisor of his plans to take the ride in the B-17, and thought he would be back in about an hour. Before he left, he stopped by his locker and grabbed his military-issued flame-retardant gloves, a practice that began when he first joined the Guard in his twenties, and something a lot of colleagues give him grief about.
“When you fly in the military, we wear flame resistant flight suits and gloves. Obviously, anything will burn if it is hot enough, but this gives us extra time to do what we have to do,” said Traficante. “When you fly, you are required to wear your gloves, in what they call critical phases of flight, so, I just got in the habit from when I flew in my early twenties of wearing my stuff. So, I am comfortable with it. No, I don’t wear it when I fly commercial,” Traficante said in jest. Since he was flying in a military airplane and not commercial, he grabbed his gloves, a decision that would likely help to save lives, including his own.
Traficante and his friend, along with the other passengers, boarded the plane and took their seats. As is regular practice for him, he took note of the exits including a hatch in the back of the plane. A few moments after the B-17 took off, Traficante, a seasoned airman, could tell there was a problem.
“The airplane kind of porpoises, they call it, and it’s like they are having a hard time staying in the air,” Traficante recalls. “Right after that, one of the crew members came back and said, ‘put your seatbelts back on.’ Now we are sitting on the floor and I really can’t see out the window, but I could tell there were some engine problems. I’m sneaking peeks out the back window of the hatch, and we just barely cleared the trees, and I thought ‘oh boy, this is not good.’ I could feel he is turning, and I yell to my friend, ‘Hey, this is not going to be good.’
“Then as we get a little closer, I can hear a thumping. I kind of stretch my neck up to see and we are hitting the approach lights coming in. I yell to him, ‘We are gonna crash.’ I don’t think anyone else heard it, but he definitely looked at me. I remember tightening my seatbelt the best I could, and I remember tightening my gloves up. I put my phone in my back pocket and braced my arm against one of the ribs of the plane and bang, we hit.”
When Traficante was able to lift his head post-impact, he was seemingly alone. “People were gone, I didn’t see any of the people that were sitting there,” he remembers. “There was all fire in front of me and there was fire to the left of me.” He was able to unclip his seatbelt and ran to the back, threw the hatch open and jumped out. He ran about 20 feet and stopped to turn around, and that’s when he realized nobody was following him, including his friend.
“I stop and I go back and now, the flames are pretty hot, so I can’t get too close.” Traficante was as close as he could safely get to the aircraft. He started yelling and then finally, another passenger came out with a bad headwound. Traficante pointed him in the direction of safety.
“I try to get back closer and my friend is not coming out and I’m waiting and waiting, and I’m yelling,” Traficante said. “Finally, he comes out of the hatch and his clothes are on fire and he’s yelling. I make eye contact with him, and I said ‘Come to me, come to me,’ and he came to me. Then I ripped the rest of his clothes off, and a construction worker was there helping, too, and he helped me put it (the fire) out.”
By this time, a fire truck from the Connecticut Air National Guard was on scene, and Traficante was able to help his friend to the bumper of the truck. “Then, after that, it was just a roaring inferno,” Traficante said.
All told, the crash took the lives of seven people, and injured seven others. Traficante suffered second degree burns on his head and a broken arm, likely caused when he braced himself for impact. His friend is out of the hospital, recovering from his injuries but has a long way to go. As for the gloves he always wears when he flies for his job?
“Did they help me get out? Yeah, I’m sure they did,” he says. “They were a brand-new set, never used. You can tell that the right one kind of has a burn mark, and then there was some blood and stuff on both of them. You could tell where I touched something that was hot, and I can’t tell you what, I can’t remember, but I am assuming it was the hatch handle.”
When asked how he felt when the Red Cross reached out to him about honoring him with a Community Impact Award at the Mission: Possible 2020 event, his first reaction was like many of the heroes Red Crossers encounter. “I don’t want to get involved,” Traficante said with a laugh. “Because I didn’t do anything, I really didn’t. I just went back to the door, that was it. I guess the biggest thing I did was take the burning clothes off my friend, but I would have done that for anybody. You don’t want to see somebody burn.”
When asked what made him change his mind about being honored, he said, “I remember working with the Red Cross when I was a firefighter, and after every fire, they came. There are people out in the front with nothing, watching everything they have go up in flames, and then you guys kind of show up. And I said, you know what? It’s a good cause, you know, I’ll do it. My wife had said, ‘I know you are not going to want to,’ But, I said, I think I will do it for the Red Cross.”
When asked what he believes makes a hero, Traficante says, “Being in a position that when you have the opportunity to do the right thing, you do it. Yeah, I guess I could have just run away and watched it from a distance, but my friend was still in there. I didn’t drag him out and like I’ve told other people, when I looked up, I didn’t see anyone else but me. I saw nothing but fire. When you are put in the position, help somebody else when you can.”
Despite meeting his own definition of a hero, Traficante still balks at the notion. “I am not a hero. Yes, when I was put into the position, I think I did the right thing, at least I tried. When you are kind of in the heat of it, you don’t think of it, but I am not going to lie, I was scared. I’m not the hero, I’m just the guy who kind of was in the position, given the opportunity and hopefully did the right thing.”
Please join the Red Cross at Mission: Possible 2020 on March 28 at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford as we honor James Traficante with the Community Impact Award. For tickets and more information, visit redcross.org/missionpossible.