ITTA BENA, Miss. (AP) — A U.S. military plane used for refueling crashed into a soybean field in rural Mississippi, killing 16 people, seven of whom were based in Camp Lejeune.
The aircraft was transporting six Marines and one Navy sailor from Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command and their associated equipment for routine small unit pre-deployment training at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. All seven of those service members were from the Camp Lejeune-based 2d Marine Raider Battalion, according to the Marine Corps Special Operations Command.
The identities of the service members whose lives were lost are still being witheld pending notification of next of kin.
Leflore County Emergency Management Agency Director Frank Randle told reporters at a briefing late Monday that 16 bodies had been recovered after the KC-130T spiraled into the ground about 85 miles (135 kilometers) north of Jackson in the Mississippi Delta. A witness said some bodies were found more than a mile from the crash site.
Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns said in a statement that a KC-130T “experienced a mishap” Monday evening but provided no details. The KC-130T is used as a refueling tanker.
WNCT’s Elizabeth Tew spoke with U.S. Marine Forces Reserve Public Affairs and confirmed the plane made a stop at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, though it is not a Cherry Point aircraft.
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 Marine Aerial Refueling and Transport Squadron (VMGR) 452, Marine Air Group-49, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve squadron was supporting a requirement to transport personnel and equipment from Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York to Naval Air Field El Centro, Calif.
The crew and passengers was made up of 15 Marines and one Navy Corpsman. Equipment on board included various small arms ammunition and personal weapons. An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team is at the scene as a precaution in the interest of safety.
The identities of the personnel whose lives were lost in the accident were withheld to allow time for their loved ones to be notified appropriately. While the details of the incident are being investigated, the Marine Corps said its focus remains on providing the necessary resources and support to the family and friends of these service members as they go through this extremely difficult time.
“On behalf of the Marine Corps Reserve, I extend my deepest sympathies to the loved ones of those who perished in last night’s tragedy,” said Lt. Gen. Rex C. McMillian, commander of Marine Forces Reserve. “The Marines and Sailor involved in this incident were among our finest. They dedicated their lives to our core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment. They will never be
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, said in a statement Tuesday morning that he and his wife were extending their deepest condolences to the families of the Marines killed, as well as to the Cherry Point station.
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.
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 corkscrewing downward with one engine smoking.
“You looked up and you saw the plane twirling around,” he said. “It was spinning down.”
Jones said the plane hit the ground behind trees in the soybean field, and by the time he and other 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 U.S. Highway 82, more than a mile from the crash site.
Greenwood Fire Chief Marcus Banks told the Greenwood Commonwealth that debris from the plane was scattered in a radius of about 5 miles (8 kilometers).
Jones said firefighters tried to put out the fire at the main crash site but withdrew after an explosion forced them back. The fire produced towering plumes of black smoke visible for miles across the flat region and continued to burn after dusk, more than four hours after the crash.
Aerial pictures taken by WLBT-TV showed the skeleton of the plane burning strongly.
“It was one of the worst fires you can imagine,” Jones said. He said the fire was punctuated by the pops of small explosions.
No more smoke was rising Tuesday morning from the site. State patrol units blocked all farm roads on U.S. Highway 82 about 2 miles (3 kilometers) away from the wreckage to keep anyone who wasn’t law enforcement or a response unit out of the area.
Officials haven’t released information on what caused the crash.
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.