ALAMEDA -- It's been 20 years since a U.S. Navy jet crashed into San Francisco Bay, taking the lives of two naval aviators.
But while the newspaper articles describing the tragic April 5, 1994, accident have faded, the memories of the men and their legacy remain fresh in the minds of the families and friends they left behind.
The solemn strains of the Navy Hymn "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" echoed throughout the hangar deck of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda on Saturday as those who knew Lt. Cmdr. Rand McNally and Lt Cmdr. Brian McMahon honored their service to the nation and reminisced during a memorial service.
The gathering was organized by McMahon's son, Sean McMahon-MacRae, who was 3 when his father died and who emigrated to Australia, where he was adopted by an Australian couple.
McNally and McMahon were Navy reservists and commercial airline pilots who had served in the Persian Gulf. They maintained their combat readiness by flying the A-6 Intruder, a carrier-based bomber no longer in use by the fleet.
They were practicing landings at Alameda Naval Air Station when the aircraft crashed into bay waters while trying to complete a turn. Press accounts at the time stated that the plane was flying too low and too slowly to complete the turn.
Along with the families of the two aviators, members of the Navy Squadron VA 304, nicknamed the "Firebirds," attended as they had during the first Navy memorial service in 1994. Like other Navy fliers, the men had nicknames: "Atlas" for McNally and "Sluggo" for McMahon.
Just before the Hornet service, a boat took families of the men to a wreath-laying service at the spot in the bay where the aircraft hit the water.
"Rand and Brian were good men and shining lights in their fields,"said Bill MacRae, Sean's adopted father and a clergyman from Perth, Australia, who conducted the services.
MacRae related a story about McMahon returning from the Persian Gulf to family members who wondered if they would be able to pick him out from among the other fliers in green flight suits. McMahon's mother, Doris, said she would recognize Brian by his walk but he had another distinguishing characteristic.
"But those of you who knew Brian knew it wasn't his walk that they recognized, it was that huge grin," MacRae said. "The biggest of all the returning aviators. That was his distinguishing feature. And when you see Sean, now 23 and now all grown up, you see exactly the same grin, and Doris can still see her son's smile in her grandson."
McNally was recruited out of college to fly for the U.S. Marines and later attended Stanford University Law School. The small class was close-knit and many of his former classmates, who are now attorneys, attended the service. At the time of the crash, McNally was unaware that he had passed the bar exam and was looking forward to his wedding in June.
He was familiar with the A-7, having landed the stricken attack jet on an aircraft carrier during a nighttime storm. The landing, accomplished while the ship was pitching in 40 to 60 foot swells, is considered one of the most amazing carrier landings ever accomplished. A video of the event went viral and is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRURB7FdsII.
In a letter to the men's families, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus wrote that McNally and McMahon led a "life and purpose and consequence.
"Rand and Brian's careers epitomize the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment," he wrote.
David Coe, a member of the 304 squadron, remembered talking to McMahon the morning of the crash and how he was looking forward to going home after the flight to be with his wife and son.
That afternoon, a client informed Coe that an accident had occurred involving a Navy plane in San Francisco Bay. He rushed to a conference room to watch news coverage of the incident and knew that McMahon was involved.
"Once I figured it out, I went back to the office and broke down and cried," he said.
Coe praised the willingness of people like McMahon and McNally to make sacrifices needed to get the job done.
"We should take some degree of comfort in knowing that 'Atlas' and 'Sluggo' left us as better people and that they left doing exactly what they wanted and loved to do," he said, adding, "God, I miss them."
McNally's brother, Ed, spoke of the loss the families felt and all the good times the two airmen would never know over the following two decades.
"That's what Brian and Rand gave up," he said. "The smiles they did not share, the conversations they never had. It leaves tremendous loss."
Sean McMahon said he began taking an interest in his father about eight years ago and wanted to organize a ceremony because the squadron members were getting older. As a symbol of his father's memory, Sean McMahon-MacRae wore his father's Navy identification tags around his neck.
"Twenty years, you can't just let that slide away," he said.