Tampa woman works for nearly two decades to bring heroes home

Since 1999, Tonja Anderson-Dell has been working to bring home the bodies of servicemen who were killed in a plane crash.

TAMPA — The nation just celebrated Veterans Day, honoring all those who've served and are willing to risk their lives for our country.

One Tampa woman has worked tirelessly for nearly two decades to help the families of fallen service members find something they need to be at peace.

“It's so much research, I had to break it into two binders,” said Tonja Anderson-Dell as she carried two full three-ring binders to her coffee table.

Since 1999, she has been writing, and researching, and hoping.

“I look at him and I just want to know what type of soldier he was. What type of person he would have been. What type of grandfather he would have been?” she said looking at a framed photograph of her grandfather, Airman Isaac William Anderson.

He was one of 52 servicemen killed when their military plane crashed into a mountain during a snowstorm in 1952. They were on their way to Anchorage, Alaska.

“Well, speed it up to me writing all of my letters in 1999, to fighting, and then 2012, a Blackhawk team during a training mission spotted something on a glacier. And we now are where we are today,” Anderson-Dell said.

For five years during the warm weeks of the summer, military mountaineers have been searching and searching through the wreckage.

“I think we have made a promise to wives, children, husbands, that if they were to die while in the service, wherever they're at, that we're going to bring them home,” said Air Force funeral director Allen Cronin.

Tonja's fight just brought another man home. World War II veteran John Ponikvar was buried on his 95th birthday, 65 years after he died.

From 52 to 15. Just 15 servicemen are still at the crash site. And because of Tanya, there's an expedition nearly every year to try and recover them. 

“For me, I have attended several of the homecomings of these men. And every time it becomes very emotional,” Anderson-Dell said. “I'm happy for the families. I really am. But I'm also like, 'When is it going to be my turn?'”

“I can't wait for when I get the phone call saying, 'Hey, we've identified Airman Anderson.' I'm just waiting for that day, but I also understand that it's a fight. And for me, as my mother would say, if God would've given me my grandfather in the first 17 (years), would I still fight for the remaining men?” Tonja said.

“So I guess it's my fight for the remaining men and hope that he'll be the last one recovered.”
 

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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