Investigators picked through debris across the fire-blackened soybean fields Tuesday where local fire chief Marcus Banks and his crew struggled for hours the day before to douse flaming aircraft wreckage.
The investigators are trying to determine why a U.S. military plane crashed and burned, killing all 16 people aboard, in the deadliest Marine crash anywhere in the world in more than a decade.
The initial call to Banks’ Greenwood fire station said two crop duster planes had crashed. But he could tell from the tall column of black smoke that wasn’t the case. And shortly after he and his crew arrived, he realized that there would be no survivors.
“It was thick black smoke and high intensity heat from the fire,” he said.
“I went into it thinking it was a recovery, not a rescue.”
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The KC-130 air tanker, built in Marietta, Ga., by Lockheed Martin, was carrying members of an elite Marine special operations unit cross-country for training in Arizona when it went down in the Mississippi Delta among huge checkerboards of green fields full of growing soybeans and catfish farms. Wreckage was scatted for miles around.
FBI agents joined military investigators, though Marine Maj. Andrew Aranda told reporters 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.
Witnesses said they heard low, rumbling explosions when the plane was still high in the sky, saw the aircraft spiraling toward the flat landscape and spotted an apparently empty parachute floating toward the Earth. Bodies were found more than a mile from the main crash site.
Will Nobile, a catfish farmer, said he was in 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.
The county coroner brought in body bags to remove the dead.
The emotional toll hit hard here in a place known for its quiet, small-town life, Banks said.
For him, the emotions ran high. He had spent 12 years in the Army Reserve and had flown in similar aircraft. He had put away those emotions while fighting the flames but on Tuesday he shared them.
“Everyone is down,” he said of his crew. “The high volume loss of life.”
Six of the Marines and the sailor were from an elite Marine Raider battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Marine Corps said. It said the seven were headed for pre-deployment training at Yuma, Ariz.
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.
The plane was based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y., 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.
Banks spoke as he stood outside the makeshift command center at the Leflore County business and development center on U.S. 82.
Inside the center, soldiers, local police and other responders took a meal break, eating fried fish and fries off paper plates.
Lt. Jamaal Ellis of the Salvation Army stood nearby.
“We’re providing food service and emotional support,” Ellis said.
He estimated that there were 200 responders here from federal, state and local agencies.
“You see the exhaustion and the grief,” he said. “They’re discouraged to see fellow warriors go down in this manner.”
Marine Lt. Stephanie Leguizamon, a spokeswoman, said that officials have nearly finished notifying the relatives of the deceased.
She said the names of the deceased would be released 24 hours after all the families were notified.
About five miles from the headquarters along U.S. 82, a lone police car sat on the barren highway silent near the main crash site, blue light flashing. Anchored to a nearby pole, about 10 black balloons wafted in a hot evening breeze.