16 dead in worst Marine crash since 2005

In this Monday, July 10, 2017 frame from video, smoke and flames rise from a military plane that crashed in a farm field, in Itta Bena, Miss., killing several. (WLBT-TV via AP)

IITTA BENA, Miss. (AP/WNCN/WNCT) — Investigators picked through debris across a fire-blackened soybean field Tuesday to try to determine why a U.S. military plane slammed into the ground, killing all 16 people aboard in the deadliest Marine crash anywhere in the world in more than a decade.

The KC-130 air tanker was carrying members of an elite Marine special operations unit cross-country for training in Arizona when it went down Monday afternoon in the Mississippi Delta, the military said. The fiery crash scattered wreckage for miles around and sent a pillar of black smoke rising over the countryside.

Witnesses said they heard low, rumbling explosions when the plane was still high in the sky, saw the aircraft spiraling toward the flat, green landscape and spotted an apparently empty parachute floating toward the earth.

Fifteen Marines and a Navy sailor were killed. Their identities were not immediately released.

Seven of those service members were from the Camp Lejeune-based 2d Marine Raider Battalion. In 2015, seven Marines from the same battalion were killed in a training accident when the Louisiana National Guard helicopter they were in crashed off the coast of Florida.

The Marines said Tuesday the air tanker was based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, and headed to California.

One of the plane’s stops was at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

WAVY sister station WNCT spoke with USMC Captain John Roberts said the aircraft took off from Cherry Point after receiving fuel there. There were no Marines on board the aircraft from Cherry Point. The plane was scheduled to drop them and their equipment off for training at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, and fly on to a naval airfield at El Centro, California.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, issued a statement Tuesday morning on the fatal plane crash:

Susan and I send our deepest condolences to the families of the Marines who lost their lives in service to our nation. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and the Havelock community are in our thoughts and prayers. This is a tragic reminder of the dangers our servicemembers are confronted with on a daily basis, including the training missions that are needed to help keep our nation safe at home and abroad.”

In a Tuesday morning tweet, President Donald Trump offered condolences.

“Marine Plane crash in Mississippi is heartbreaking. Melania and I send our deepest condolences to all!” Trump wrote.

Witnesses said they heard low, rumbling explosions when the plane was still high in the sky, saw the aircraft spiraling toward the flat, green landscape and spotted an apparently empty parachute floating toward the earth.

The crash happened outside the small town of Itta Bena, about 85 miles north of the state capital of Jackson. Bodies were found more than a mile from the plane.

It was the deadliest Marine Corps air disaster since 2005, when a transport helicopter went down during a sandstorm in Iraq, killing 30 Marines and a sailor.

The Marine Corps said the cause was under investigation and offered no information on whether the plane issued a distress call.

FBI agents joined military investigators, though Marine Maj. Andrew Aranda told reporters that no foul play was suspected.

“They are looking at the debris and will be collecting information off of that to figure out what happened,” Aranda said. The county coroner, meanwhile, brought in body bags to remove the dead.

The KC-130 is used to refuel aircraft in flight and transport cargo and troops.

The plane was based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, and officials said some of those killed were from the base. Several bouquets were left at the main gate at Stewart, which was closed to reporters and issued no immediate statement.

Six of the Marines and the sailor were from an elite Marine Raider battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the Marine Corps said. It said the seven and their equipment were headed for pre-deployment training at Yuma, Arizona.

The Marine Raiders are a special operations force that is part of the global fight against terrorism. They carry out raids against insurgents and terrorists, conduct deep reconnaissance and train foreign militaries.

Will Nobile, a catfish farmer, said he was inside his office Monday afternoon when he heard an unusually loud rumble in the sky.

“It sounded like a big thunderstorm,” Nobile said. “Not one big explosion, but a couple of second-long explosions. … A long, steady rumble is what it was.”

He walked outside to see what was making the noise in the cloudless afternoon and saw a “gray streak” disappear behind some trees, and then black smoke rising.

Andy Jones said he was working on his family’s catfish farm just before 4 p.m. when he heard a boom and looked up to see the plane spiraling downward with one engine smoking.

“You looked up and you saw the plane twirling around,” he said. “It was spinning down.”

Jones said that by the time he and others reached the crash site, fires were burning too intensely to approach the wreckage. The force of the crash nearly flattened the plane, Jones said.

“Beans are about waist-high, and there wasn’t much sticking out above the beans,” he said.

Jones said a man borrowed his cellphone to report to authorities that there were bodies across a highway, more than a mile away.

Nobile said he drove to the site and as he and others stood by a highway, they saw an open parachute wafting down from the sky: “It didn’t look like anybody was in it.” Another catfish farmer found an empty, open parachute later near a fish pond, Nobile said.

Greenwood Fire Chief Marcus Banks told the Greenwood Commonwealth that debris was scattered in a radius of about 5 miles (8 kilometers).

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is about 115 miles (185 kilometers) southeast of Raleigh and about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean.

The station was authorized by Congress just before the start of World War II. It supports the 2nd Marine Aviation Wing, providing, among other services, KC-130 aircraft used for in-flight refueling. The station covers 45 square miles (115 square kilometers) and has nearly 14,000 Marines, sailors and civilian employees.