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Marines Seek Clues in Copter Crashes That Left 23 Dead

Times Staff Writers

Military authorities investigating two weekend helicopter crashes in South Korea in which 23 Marines were killed, including more than a dozen from Camp Pendleton, said Monday that both accidents occurred under clear skies and that the aircraft seemed to drop for no apparent reason.

But, because the accidents, which occurred during military maneuvers, involved different types of helicopters made by different companies, senior military officers said they are not considering grounding any aircraft.

“If there was any interconnectability, I would be concerned,” said Maj. Gen. D.E.P. Miller, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro and Tustin in Orange County. “I guess if I have any concern, it’s what caused the accidents. Was it pilots? Was it mechanical?”

On Friday, four Tustin-based Marines were killed when their CH-46E Sea Knight transport helicopter crashed near Pohang on South Korea’s east coast. The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

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No Collision or Sign of Trouble

At about 10:50 a.m. Sunday (PST), a CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed while on maneuvers in the same area, killing 19 Marines and injuring 16 more, including one on the ground.

Miller said witnesses to both accidents reported that the troop transport helicopters fell to the ground with no collision with other craft or sign of engine trouble. Night goggles, which have been blamed for several recent military helicopter crashes, were not at issue because the crashes occurred in daylight.

Investigators on Monday continued to sift through the wreckage of the huge Sea Stallion helicopter that went down Sunday in a dry riverbed while preparing to drop off troops.

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All but four of the Marines aboard the Sea Stallion were stationed at Camp Pendleton. The other four were stationed at the Tustin Marine Air Corps Station. They included the aircraft’s pilot and co-pilot, who were killed, and the crew chief and gunnery/mechanic, who survived, Miller said.

Names of the dead and injured were being withheld pending notification of next of kin, the Marine Corps said.

Miller said the crew chief, who was thrown clear of the wreckage, suffered only a bump on the head.

“Obviously, the Lord was watching over that young man,” Miller said.

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The crash came as Tustin authorities were preparing for memorial services today for the four Tustin-based Marines killed Friday.

Authorities said the two crashes coming so closely together have shocked the base.

“It is very sobering to go through something like this,” said Navy Cmdr. Norm Williams, a chaplain at the base. “They train so hard and are so professional, so whether it’s a mechanical problem or pilot error or whatever, it shocks everyone.”

Word of the crash began trickling in Sunday night at Camp Pendleton, and flags on base were being flown at half-staff Monday.

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Hardest on Families

As information on the casualties spread through the sprawling north San Diego County military base, Navy chaplains and Marine Corps casualty assistance officers worked through the night and early morning contacting next of kin, said Gunnery Sgt. Stan Pedersen, a Camp Pendleton spokesman.

Miller said such tragedies are hardest on the families of the victims. He said the aviators themselves accept the risks of their jobs.

“All aviators believe as I do: that we’re in a very dangerous business, and they know something can happen,” Miller said. “These guys are so finely trained that they don’t worry about these kind of things.”

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Both crashes occurred during joint U. S.-South Korean military maneuvers in a mountainous region about 15 miles west of the port city of Pohang, authorities said.

Sunday’s crash was the fourth in nine days involving three types of military transport helicopters. The crashes have claimed the lives of 40 servicemen.

“All of the crashes will be thoroughly investigated,” said Pentagon spokesman Jim Kudla, who added: “The (Department of Defense) obviously is very concerned anytime there is a crash.”

Sending Own Investigators

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Spokesman for the manufacturers of the two Tustin-based helicopters involved in the crashes said Monday that they were sending their own safety investigators to the scene to assist military officials.

The CH-46 Sea Knight that went down Friday was manufactured by Boeing-Vertol Corp. of Philadelphia. The CH-53 Sea Stallion was built by Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn.

“Our reaction is anytime you lose four lives it’s a sad situation,” said Frank Lake, spokesman for Boeing Helicopters, which recently changed its name from Boeing-Vertol.

Lt. Col. Thomas Boyd, a spokesman for the U. S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said the copter in Sunday’s crash went down in clear though hazy conditions and that weather probably was not a factor.

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Some of the dead were burned beyond recognition and were being identified by their dog tags or other military identification.

The critically injured were taken to the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood, which was taking part in the exercises, code-named “Team Spirit.” The other injured were transported to a military hospital in Seoul.

Authorities said the accident did not disrupt the annual military maneuvers, which involve about 70,000 U. S. troops and 137,000 South Korean soldiers. Boyd said the exercises will end as scheduled Thursday.

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.

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