IITTA BENA, Miss. (AP/WNCN/WNCT) — A U.S. military plane used for refueling crashed into a soybean field in rural Mississippi, killing at least 16 people aboard in a fiery wreck and spreading debris for miles, officials said.
Leflore County Emergency Management Agency Director Frank Randle told reporters at a briefing late Monday that 16 bodies had been recovered after the KC-130 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.
The KC-130 is used as a refueling tanker.
WRIC sister station WNCT spoke with U.S. Marine Forces Reserve Public Affairs, who confirms the plane made a stop at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, though it is not a Cherry Point Aircraft.
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USMC Captain John Roberts say the aircraft took off from Cherry Point after receiving fuel there. There were no Marines on board the aircraft from Cherry Point.
A Marine Corps spokesperson says it was a 4th Marine Aircraft Wing asset which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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, Arizona, according to WNCT.
All seven of those service members were from the Camp Lejeune-based 2d Marine Raider Battalion.
In 2015, seven Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command Marines from the same battalion were killed in a training accident when the Louisiana National Guard helicopter they were in crashed off the coast of Florida.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) issued a statement Tuesday morning on the fatal plane crash:
Susan and I send our deepest condolences to the families of the Marines who lost their lives in service to our nation. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and the Havelock community are in our thoughts and prayers. This is a tragic reminder of the dangers our servicemembers are confronted with on a daily basis, including the training missions that are needed to help keep our nation safe at home and abroad.”
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.
Maj. Andrew Aranda is the Marine Corps Spokesman who addressed the media Tuesday afternoon.
“They were on a training flight from Cherry Point, North Carolina to El Centro, California. They were on a mission to transport personnel and equipment, that’s what we know right now. We have investigators on the scene to gather all the information for the investigation that will be going on. We’re still notifying next of kin, we’re still pending that, so we want to give those families all the time that they need during this difficult time so they can get all the support they need,” said Maj. Aranda. “The families will be handling it, I can only imagine it’s probably one of the worst times that can be but that’s what we are here for to provide them with chaplain support, mental health, anything that they can that they need. It’s all part of the process.”
The identities have not been released as the families are being notified. Right now, investigators are looking into the possibility that there was an explosion in mid-air because of the wide debris field. Questions are also being raised about how much ammunition on board.
“There was some ammunition. I’m not familiar what types of ammunition. But out of precaution we wanted to make sure people did not approach, get close, just out of general safety,” said Maj. Aranda.
Officials did not release 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.
This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.