Photo gallery: Four flickering candles - moving service for helicopter victims in Salthouse Church
06:30 13 January 2014
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2013
Four flickering candles placed on the altar of Salthouse Church were a simple but moving reminder of the young American lives so recently lost on the marshes a short distance away.
Uniformed US and British air force chiefs sat side by side in the front pew for a service attended by the Bishop of Lynn, Rt Rev Jonathan Meyrick.
As each candle was lit at the beginning of the service, the bishop lifted his hands above it and recited the first name of each of the USAF helicopter crew killed in last week’s tragedy: “Christopher, Sean, Dale and Afton”.
Representing 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, where the four had been stationed, was base vice commander, Col Mark Ciero.
Simultaneously, at Lakenheath, base commander Col Kyle Robinson and his personnel were saluting the four – Captains Sean Ruane and Christopher Stover, Technical Sergeant Dale Mathews and Staff Sergeant Afton Ponce – for one last time in Britain before their bodies were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Local people, regular churchgoers, and some from further afield who wanted to pay their respects, joined the military chiefs yesterday morning in Salthouse’s ancient church which stands on a hill above the village, almost overlooking the site of the tragedy, between Salthouse and Cley. On the coast road directly below, police still manned road blocks to prevent people entering the crash zone.
A sparkling, frosty morning and skeins of wild geese flying overhead belied the grim work which is still going on at the site to try and discover why the Pave Hawk search and rescue aircraft crashed during a low-flying night exercise on January 7.
The three men and one woman crew of the search and rescue helicopter were remembered in prayers and in the bishop’s sermon.
And afterwards the bishop said that a memorial service was likely to be held in the church at a later date, if the idea met the approval of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath.
“Something like this affects a much wider group of people than those who have died,” he said.
“I hope that people will have got from today’s service a sense that the community here is holding everybody in their prayers, and a sense of the sustaining comfort that God can provide.”
Col Ciero said he had spent the week at the crash site and attending the service had been an opportunity for him to view the tragedy in a reverent way.
“We are here as guests in your community. Many people in East Anglia have sent their condolences and this week I have felt the love and affection of the community and their strong support,” he added.
“We felt connected to the folk up here already because we have a long history of flying operations in this area.
“I found the service humbling – and it was a blessing to be able to attend it. The mood at Lakenheath is, of course, solemn – but we are moving forward.”
Both he and Gp Cptn Harvey Smyth, station commander at RAF Marham, were due to travel from the service to Cley Visitor Centre which has become a centre of operations for those involved in the investigation.
Gp Cptn Smyth said he was attending the service as a mark of respect to those who had lost their lives, and to represent the UK military.
Also present were John Cushing, owner of the Thursford Collection, and his wife Barbara.
Mr Cushing is honorary base commander at RAF Lakenheath while his wife is a regular walker at Salthouse.
Blakeney friends, Royal British Legion members and Navy wives Josephine Cooke and Sandy Amis, who both hail from Cley, said they had especially wanted to be attend the service. “I feel very sad and emotional about it,” said Mrs Amis. “The other day I sat with my daughter and we just cried. We just felt we wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the services for all they do.”
Five members of Wells and Cley Coastguard who had all taken part in the rescue mission last week attended the service in uniform. Their station officer, Steven Willsher, said: “They were search and rescue and we are too. Sadly, in this case, our search was not necessary and the rescue was unobtainable.”