When Keith and Daisy Johnson flew to Idaho to bring home their son’s remains after a horrific June highway crash, they asked to meet with his closest friends.
Three dozen airmen at Mountain Home Air Force Base turned out to share their memories of Carlos Johnson, known to his buddies as “C.J.”
His devastated parents were heartened to hear how their 23-year-old son had grown and come into his own during three years at the base.
“It helped us so much,” Keith Johnson told the Statesman in a recent interview from his home in Key West, Florida. “When we left there, we missed the love that his friends gave us in different stories. They are just an amazing group.”
The Johnsons aren’t ready now but they do plan to one day return to Idaho with their son. They want to spread his ashes in the Idaho mountains that he explored with gusto after buying a Jeep Wrangler — a place he came to love, before his life was cut short.
“Okinawa, Key West, Panama, all the different places he lived, he actually liked Idaho the best,” Keith Johnson said. “We were surprised. That was where he found himself. He was even talking about buying a house.”
The cause of the crash
Johnson died at the wheel of his Jeep on the night of June 16.
He was headed east on Interstate 84 to Mountain Home after seeing a late movie at The Village at Meridian with two of his friends, Senior Airman Lawrence Manlapit III, 26, and Senior Airman Karlie Westall, 21.
The Jeep was stopped in a line of traffic on the interstate due to a bottleneck caused by construction, which merged four lanes of traffic down to just one. A brand-new semitrailer driven by New York truck driver Illya D. Tsar plowed into the rear of the Jeep at 62 miles per hour, according to a preliminary crash report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The collision created a massive fireball, and it killed all four people in those two vehicles. Idaho State Police investigators said Tsar’s inattention likely was the cause of the crash. Tsar’s driving record has also come into question since the crash due to a multitude of violations and 2017 suspensions.
At least one witness thought Tsar’s erratic driving before the collision was a sign that he was fatigued, perhaps one of the tens of thousands of drowsy-driving crashes in the U.S. each year.
“This type of accident happens far too often,” Keith Johnson said. “If anyone wants to get involved, there is an organization that tries to prevent such bad drivers — Parents Against Tired Truckers.”
He and his wife have donated to the group, and they plan to get involved when they are back on their feet.
Friends went in different car
Airman First-Class Sydney Housh, 22, and her boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Jordon Weiss, 27, were supposed to be in the Jeep with their friends that night.
But Housh wasn’t feeling well that day.
“At first I said I wasn’t going to go, and I was going to let my boyfriend go and have guys time or whatever,” Housh said. “After a while I decided I wanted to go.”
She went with her boyfriend in his car.
Earlier that day, Johnson and Manlapit were playing “Kan Jam,” a Frisbee game. They later rounded up Housh, Weiss and Westall to go see “The Incredibles 2,” an animated movie about a family of superheroes.
Housh, who has been at Mountain Home for two years, said she met Johnson on base last year. She described him as friendly and welcoming at a time when she didn’t have a lot of friends. Johnson and Weiss were already friends and later shared an apartment.
“I think my boyfriend got him into photography, and I was already into it,” Housh said. “We would go to Pine and Featherville to take pictures, and go camping in the mountains. There’s that hill outside the base that (Johnson) would drive up.”
Johnson was good at marshaling his friends into joining him on new adventures. He brought people together, earning the nickname “The Mayor.”
“He forced me to go to salsa night in Boise,” Housh recalled.
Johnson’s best friend, Lawrence “Pit” Manlapit, was also a high-energy, athletic person who was always game for trying new things. Manlapit was a lifelong dancer, and his mom believes he got his friends into salsa dancing.
“My son was more the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants type,” said his mother, Dorine Norko, who has become friends with Johnson’s parents and talks to them regularly.
Manlapit loved the stars, and he aspired to one day work for NASA, Norko said. He was very protective of his three sisters, and he called his nephews every night.
“They would say their bedtime prayers,” Norko said.
The Catholic faith was another thing that Manlapit and Johnson had in common. Johnson had three cross tattoos on his back — which were still distinguishable after his body was pulled from the fiery crash, the coroner’s office told his parents. That came as an unexpected affirmation of their faith.
Westall, too, had strong faith. She was confirmed at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and she was attending church in Mountain Home.
Friends from 3 different squadrons
Johnson and Manlapit played soccer, and their parents believe that’s where they met Westall — an animal lover who had a cat named Pong and three aquariums at her townhouse. She wanted to be a marine biologist and was excited that her next assignment would be in a coastal area.
“They were all in different squadrons,” Norko said. This was unique, she said, because it’s typical for airmen to hang out with their fellow squad members.
Manlapit worked on aircraft electronics with the 391st Fighter Squadron, while Westall was an air traffic controller with the 366th Operations Support Squadron and Johnson worked in operations management with the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron.
Westall was creative and artistic. Those qualities came through when she was involved in setting up decorations for a Halloween party. It turned out to be a cross between a haunted house and “Saturday Night Fever,” her dad said.
Her friends framed her homemade soccer jersey — her name written in glitter pen — and sent it to her parents, they said. They remember their daughter as someone who was always willing to pitch in where needed.
She would usually talk to her parents via FaceTime on Sundays. The day after the fatal crash was Sunday, June 17 — Father’s Day.
Westall’s parents, who live in Sioux Falls, were out of town earlier that weekend to spend time with her grandparents. They got home very late on Sunday and expected to talk to her on Monday.
“There was a Father’s Day card from Karlie to me. We were waiting to open that on FaceTime with her,” Mike Westall said.
At about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, the commander and the chaplain from the South Dakota Air National Guard No. 114 Fighter Wing base showed up at their house. The men hand-delivered a letter that said Karlie was missing.
“At the time, they did not know where Karlie was. They were going through a head count,” her father said. The parents did an online search and found headlines about the terrible crash in Boise.
When they arrived in Boise the following Sunday, the couple asked to be taken to the site of the crash.
“When I saw the extent of how wide it was, I thought, ‘What the hell was the fuel to this thing?’” Mike Westall said.
They met and prayed with Karlie’s friends at the base, including one who used to paint with her. He gave them a private letter to place in her crypt.
One of Karlie Westall’s high school friends, who is serving in the Navy in Japan, traveled for nearly a full day to get to Idaho to escort her remains home.
“When we flew back into Sioux Falls, the Freedom Fighters were waiting to escort us to the funeral home,” Mike Westall said.
Coming back to Idaho
After the movie on June 16, Housh and Weiss decided to get coffee at Dutch Bros. in Boise, while their friends headed back to Mountain Home via Eagle Road and the interstate. They did not see or know their friends had died in the crash until two days later, during an “all-call” on Monday at the base.
“It took maybe a whole week to piece everything together,” Housh said. It’s been hard emotionally — she lost a friend to suicide just four years ago — so this is another crushing blow.
Manlapit’s family is Hawaiian, and he had hoped to be stationed in Japan, not Idaho. His mother recalled being happy that he was stateside rather than overseas because it felt safer: “What could ever happen to you with all those potatoes over there?”
Her son died on June 16, which also happens to be her wedding anniversary. She and Tom Norko, Manlapit’s stepdad, were out of town celebrating at Rhode Island’s Block Island when they got the news.
“I do want to go back to Idaho at some point, just because I want to visit it more to see exactly what my son had fallen in love with,” Dorine Norko said. “In the end, he really loved being there. He loved all the friends he made.”
Donations in memory
The families of three airmen are asking that donations in their children’s memory go to these groups:
- Karlie Westall. Future Farmers of America, or FFA, and the Harrisburg High School (Sioux Falls, S.D.) band.
- Lawrence Manlapit. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS; Bridgeport (Conn.) School District and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.
- Carlos Johnson. Truck Safety Coalition, One World One Canvas.