Two Marine helicopters collided in the dark and crashed in a piney swamp Friday during the biggest U.S.-British training exercise in history, killing 14 people. A pilot and co-pilot were seriously injured.
The collision involved a CH-46E Sea Knight and an AH-1W Cobra assault helicopter and occurred about 2 a.m. in clear weather under a half-moon.
Rescue workers had to wade into chest-deep mud and water and cut through the underbrush with chain saws to search for bodies. All of the victims were Americans.
"It's in a heavily marshed thick woods, extremely dense underbrush, making it just about impassible by any kind of vehicle," said Col. J.C. Yannessa, whose uniform had a water line across the top of his shirt pocket.
Crews retrieved all of the bodies by 6 p.m. Many were extensively burned by a fire that broke out upon impact, said a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Dental records will be needed to identify the remains, he said.
It was the worst Marine Corps aviation disaster since a Sea Knight crashed at sea in 1989, killing 14 people aboard.
"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 cause of the crash was not immediately known. The Marine Corps said the Cobra's mission was to fly ahead of the larger Sea Knight, a troop transport, to secure a landing zone for it. Once the Sea Knight approached the zone, the Cobra was to swing back around.
Camp Lejeune spokesman Maj. Steve Little could not say whether the pilots were using night vision goggles, or describe other conditions on the mock battlefield.
Fisherman David Milbourne 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."
The Pentagon official said the two Marines who survived the crash were the pilot and the co-pilot of the CH-46E. The pilot was hospitalized in critical condition with head and chest injuries. The co-pilot was in stable condition with less severe injuries.
The aircraft were participating in Operation Purple Star, war games involving 38,000 U.S. troops and more than 15,000 British troops assembled off the North Carolina coast this week.
Air operations related to the war games were suspended after the crash but resumed later in the morning.
In March, the Marine Corps called a two-day halt to all nonessential flight operations--both airplanes and helicopters--to review safety rules after a rash of unexplained crashes. Before Friday's collision, nine Marine Corps aircraft had crashed this year, killing five people.
Friday's collision was the second deadly military helicopter crash in two days. On Thursday, four people died when a CH-53E Super Stallion crashed during a test flight at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Conn. The helicopter was to be assigned to a Marine unit that provides cargo service to the White House.
As part of the war games, British troops with 27 ships and 57 aircraft are operating with the Americans as a coalition force against the fictitious enemy nation of Korona, whose army "invaded" the smaller country of Kartuna.
The scenario is meant to replicate a potential crisis in the Persian Gulf. A U.S.-British amphibious assault overnight kicked off the war games. On Thursday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and his British counterpart, Michael Portillo, came aboard a U.S. warship for a firsthand look before the mock attack.
"This is what we called 'D-Day Plus One,"' Little said. "Yesterday was 'D-Day,' the largest amphibious assault since the landing at Normandy."