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Oil City man killed in copter crash

| Thursday, March 13, 2003

During his high school days in Venango County, a young man known by his classmates as "Big Poppa Pump," "Hungary" and "Mayerstink" often talked about his dream to become a soldier and serve his country.

Pfc. Shawn A. Mayerscik, 22, of Oil City, who lived his dream and survived numerous combat missions in Afghanistan, was one of 11 soldiers who died when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a U.S. Army training exercise in upstate New York, the military announced Wednesday.

Another Pennsylvania soldier, Sgt. John L. Eichenlaub Jr., 24, of South Williamsport Lycoming County, was among those killed Tuesday afternoon when the UH-60 went down in a remote part of the rugged, 167-square-mile post in northern New York.

Two of the 13 soldiers aboard the helicopter survived. One remained hospitalized in critical condition and the other was in serious condition.

"Shawn's most favorite movie in the world was 'Black Hawk Down.' He drug me to see that movie before he went to Afghanistan," said Mayerscik's mother, Kathy, referring to the film about the 13 special operations soldiers who perished during a 1993 battle with Somalian warlords in Mogadishu, Somalia.

"The fact that he died in a Black Hawk was in some way right," she said yesterday.

Mayerscik was born and raised in Johnstown. His family moved to Oil City in 1995 when his father, Stephen, got a job there.

The 1999 graduate of Oil City High School played football, ran track and was a member of the swim team as a sophomore, according to a copy of the high school yearbook provided by the Oil City Library.

His mother said he also earned a black belt in karate and became an accredited scuba diver.

"All Shawn wanted to do from the time he was a sophomore in high school was to be an Army Ranger," Kathy Mayerscik said. "He achieved that goal. He went with the (U.S. Army Airborne) Rangers to Afghanistan and saw a lot of combat action there."

His favorite quote, according to his yearbook, is from rap singer Tupac Shakur: "A coward dies a thousand deaths; a soldier dies but once."

Mayerscik said her son "came home much more mature" from his experiences in Afghanistan and decided he needed a change. The Army approved his transfer to the infantry, and he was sent in November to Fort Drum, situated along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, about 70 miles northeast of Syracuse.

It is home to the 10th Mountain Division -- known by those stationed there as "The Polar Bear Battalion" -- and has been a major staging area for reserve units taking part in the buildup toward war with Iraq.

"It's about the coldest place on Earth," Mayerscik said.

"My husband and I were up there a couple weeks ago. Every day it felt like it was 30 degrees below zero. There are big snowdrifts everywhere; it looks like they got tired of trying to plow it."

Mayerscik said her son called her every night, unless he was overseas, and Monday was no exception.

"We were quite relieved. He said he wasn't going (to Iraq) right now, and we were hoping things would end before it was his turn to go. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders."

Shawn did not call Tuesday.

"I called and said, 'Shawn, I haven't heard from you. Give me a call.' About 10 minutes later, I saw the news on TV about a Black Hawk going down, and I had a feeling it was Shawn.

"I called again and told him I saw the news, but that I was sure he was safe and out there trying to help. But I told him we were worried and asked him to call me as soon as he could, even if it was the middle of the night," Mayerscik said.

"My husband and I just sat there. About 20 after 11, we saw a car coming up the driveway. That was always my worst nightmare, because that means your soldier is gone and that's what they told me," Mayerscik said, sobbing.

The Black Hawk had completed an assault exercise and was returning to the airfield when the crash occurred.

There was no indication of trouble beforehand, and crews from the two other helicopters participating in the exercise did not see the crash, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division.

"They came back here, and that's when they noticed the trail helicopter was missing," he said.

Investigators from the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., were on the scene yesterday, joined by personnel from Fort Drum's Criminal Investigation Command, which reviews all accidents on the base. Their work was slowed by heavy snowfall.

Officials said the crash appeared to be an accident.

Mayerscik said her son planned to attend classes at Penn State when his tour of duty was up in November.

The Army was going to pay for his schooling, and he was then to spend four more years in the service, this time as an officer, she said. He was planning a career in the U.S. Secret Service.

Shawn's sister, Stacey, a nurse in Greenville, N.C., flew home last night to be with her family.

When Mayerscik wrote his high school memories for the yearbook, he included: "Mom, Dad, Stacey....luv ya!"

As she was awaiting the arrival of her daughter, Kathy Mayerscik said: "I don't know how we are going to go on without Shawn.

"The Army has some very fine men. I believe my son was one of them."

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