Two Marine Corps helicopters collided during nighttime exercises early Friday morning, killing 14 people and severely injuring two others in the latest of a series of military air crashes in recent weeks.
The helicopters, a CH-46 Sea Knight transport and an AH-1 Cobra assault craft, were participating in a mock amphibious landing that was part of a larger military exercise involving U.S. and British Marines and naval forces.
Although the precise cause of the crash was not immediately known, Marine Corps officials said the Cobra was assigned to fly ahead of the Sea Knight and secure a landing zone for the troop carrier. The Cobra then was to swing around as the Sea Knight approached the zone.
Marine Corps officials said late Friday that they still did not have details about the altitude and speed of the two helicopters or how they came to collide. A formal investigation is expected to be completed in the next few days.
"Our hearts go out to the families, the friends, the loved ones of those who lost their lives," President Clinton said at the White House.
The aircraft were part of Medium Helicopter Squadron 266, attached to nearby New River Marine Corps Air Station, and were operating from the Navy helicopter carrier Saipan, which was off the North Carolina coast.
The Marine Corps said it was withholding the names of those killed until their families had been notified. A Pentagon official said the two Marines who survived the crash were the pilot and co-pilot of the CH-46. The pilot was hospitalized in critical condition with head and chest injuries. The co-pilot was in stable condition with less severe injuries.
Officials said recovery of the injured and dead was made more difficult both by the terrain and by the fact that the helicopters burst into flames after the collision. By late Friday, only 11 bodies had been recovered.
"The land directly below where the collision occurred was very swampy and very densely forested. There were certain locations in the swamp where the water was up chest deep on a 6-foot Marine." said Lt. Stewart Upton, a Marine spokesman.
Authorities said the collision occurred about 2 a.m. in the southern part of Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base located in southeastern North Carolina near the city of Jacksonville.
Fisherman David Milbourne told the Associated Press that he heard the crash while pulling shrimp nets.
"It sounded a lot like an 18-wheeler crashing into a wall," he said. "I didn't pay much attention because it was late. We had heard helicopters flying overhead all night, but after the noise everything went silent. It was dead quiet."
Marine Corps officials said the night was clear and the pilots most likely were wearing night-vision goggles, which are designed to help them see what is happening on the ground but which sometimes can impair efforts to see other aircraft.
It was the worst Marine Corps aviation disaster since a Sea Knight crashed at sea in 1989, killing 14 people aboard.
Friday's collision marked the second fatal helicopter crash in two days. On Thursday, a CH-53 Super Stallion crashed during a training flight at Sikorsky Aircraft Co. in Stratford, Conn. It was to have been used by the Marines to carry cargo for the White House.
The mishap at Camp Lejeune marked the ninth time this year that Marine Corps aircraft have crashed. In March, the Corps temporarily grounded all nonessential flights to review its safety rules, but it since has resumed normal operations.
The CH-46, first introduced 31 years ago, is one of the oldest aircraft in military service, and the Marine Corps has restricted both its speed and the number of Marines that it carries. Much of its equipment is obsolete and many of its spare parts no longer are made.
The Marine Corps plans to replace the helicopter with the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor design scheduled to come into the fleet in 2001. The Navy also uses the CH-46, primarily to transport sailors and equipment to and from ships.
The landing in which the Marines were participating was part of a U.S.-British exercise called Operation Purple Star, which includes about 38,000 U.S. troops and 15,000 British troops acting as a coalition force that is "invading" a fictitious Third World country.
The scenario is intended to replicate a potential crisis in the Persian Gulf. The two nations were part of a U.S.-led allied coalition that defeated the Iraqi army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Officials said air operations over the area were suspended just after the collision but the overall exercise is proceeding as scheduled.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry and British Defense Minister Michael Portillo visited a U.S. warship for a firsthand look at the exercise.
Friday's collision brought the overall crash rate for Marine Corps aircraft--the number of major mishaps for every 100,000 hours of flying--to 4.63, up from 3.04 last year. The rate for the CH-46 is 6.91, up from 1.88 last year. And that for the AH-1 is 5.77, up from 3.29.
Pine reported from Washington and Harrison from Camp Lejeune.