The last thing Staff Sgt. Joseph J. Beyers Jr. remembers is being picked up from the flaming wreckage, carried off by someone "as big as a mountain."
"He had me under his arm like a loaf of bread and he said, 'Hey -- I've got a live one. Let's get him out of here.'"
Because of that man-mountain, Beyers is one of the survivors of the unsuccessful attempt last April 24 to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. But for a while, it looked as if he was going to be one of the dead.
A crewman on the C130 transport plane that collided with one of the hellicopters, Beyers was burned so badly that he was given the last rites at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He doesn't remember it. He doesn't remember a visit from President Carter, not one from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). He was unconscious for a week and a half.
Recently out of the hospital, his burned fingers are still being held in place with protruding, painful-looking surgical pins. His back is a patchwork of scars from skin grafts taken to treat the burns on his arms and legs.
"They tell me the priest gave me last rites. I talked to the priest, prayed with him. They said I talked to President Carter when he came down, I don't remember anything -- it was just kind of snatches here and there."
Beyers got out of the hospital on June 27, nearly three months to the day that he was brought back from Iran. Immediately afterward he visited his parents in this bedroom community on the Georgia-South Carolina line, where he consented to an interview about the raid.
The soft-spoken, 37-year-old Beyers was the airborne radio operator and in charge of "classified materials," which he cannot discuss.
The plane had been on the ground for nearly four hours when the word came that the mission had been aborted. It was a simple command -- Beyers recalls the commanding officer saying, "O.K., the mission is aborted."
"We loaded up some of the troops and got ready to leave and the flash occurred -- they had given us priority takeoff because we had been on the ground so long our engines were almost out of gas. We had priority takeoff, we just . . . we just started to taxi. . . . .
"When the helicopter hit us, something exploded. I was trying to get out of the airplane. I guess I started crawling through the cargo compartment, or something, I don't know.
"I don't remember how I got on the floor in the first place. The only thing I remember after I saw the flash outside the plane -- I asked the pilot, 'What happened?'"
"He said, 'Something hit us, let's get the hell out of here.' I turned around to the door, and the next thing I remember I was lying on the floor."
The next thing Beyers clearly remembers is being in the hospital recovering from the wounds. He was given such a small chance of living than when he got back to the states, military officials immediately retired him because that way his family would stand to receive $10,000 more in insurance benefits if he died.
Beyers probably saved his life, he recalls, by shucking off 40 rounds of pistol ammunition -- which probably would have exploded -- early in the flight because the plane was so hot. But he also rolled the sleeves up on his flameproof flight suit, which made his burns worse.
Now he lives at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where he will remain as long as he continues to receive treatment for the burns. Beginning next month, this man who, for five years trained for secret missions, will take a job as a radio dispatcher for a new limousine service.
Beyers does not regret the Iranian experience. "We were completely convinced that the mission would work," he said. The five malfunctioning helicopters and a deseret sandstorm were "freak" occurrences, Beyers said.
He tries to keep the incident out of his mind though, because among the eight dead were his best friends from the 8th Special Operations Squadron, men he flew with for three years from Hurlbert Airfield, near Eglin.
He tries not to think about it for the sake of his five children, ages 9 through 16, and for his own sake as well.
A week before he was released from his three-month stay at the burn center in Texas he had a nightmare -- he dreamed he was on fire.
"I don't mind talking about it. If I start dreaming about it, then I'll be in trouble."
But, he says, he does not intend to dream about it.