Sifting Through Military Plane Wreckage

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNADILLA, Ga. (AP) - Military crews pulled the data and voice recorders from the wreckage of a National Guard cargo plane but slick, muddy conditions hampered the recovery of the 21 victims' remains.

Rescue teams have waded through 3 feet of slippery mud caused by a 4-inch deluge of rain Saturday, when the C-23 Sherpa crashed in a field in south-central Georgia, killing everyone on board.

``It's a quagmire,'' said Lt. Col. Deborah Bertrand, a spokeswoman at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins that had tracked the plane. ``Recovery operations are going to be difficult and protracted.''

Defense officials have sent about 150 soldiers and Air Force personnel to the site to provide security, remove the bodies of the 21 National Guard members and search for a cause.

Although the storm had abated, strong wind and standing water still hampered recovery teams, who resumed their work Monday. Temperatures plunged into the 40s overnight, forcing the crews to endure cold winds.

Maj. Randy Noller, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, said aviation investigators ``will require a significant amount of time'' to sift through the charred wreckage and determine why the twin-engine plane crashed while returning a National Guard unit to Virginia from two weeks of training in Florida.

``Obviously, there was bad weather when the crash happened, but at this point we don't know if that was a factor,'' Noller said.

Investigators did not know Sunday whether the in-flight data and voice recorders were working, said Col. Dan Woodward, the Air Force commander at the crash site.

The passengers included 18 Virginia Air Guard members. The plane's pilot and two other crew members were from the Florida Army National Guard's 171st Aviation Battalion.

The C-23 Sherpa was assigned to the Florida battalion, based at Lakeland, Fla. It took off at 9:57 a.m. Saturday from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach and was headed to Oceana Naval Air Station, Va. No trouble was reported at takeoff, Air Force officials said.

Residents said the plane's engines sputtered briefly before the plane tumbled out of the thick clouds and exploded on impact.

``It was a big pile of burning stuff,'' said Justin Posey, 17, who rushed to the crash site with his mother when she heard the crash from their home about a mile away.

The victims, all men, ranged in age from the early 20s to 60 and include veterans from the Gulf War and Vietnam. Their remains will eventually be taken to an Air Force casualty center in Dover, Del.

``Military service involves great danger, in times of peace as well as war, and this accident provides stark proof of that,'' Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday in a statement.

Families and friends of the air guardsmen, all members of the 203rd Red Horse Squadron, gathered at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach. Red Horse squadrons, which include plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers, are rapid deployment units that can quickly set up tent cities for the military.

``It's been emotionally taxing, but we, I, must be strong for the families,'' said Larry Harris, a member of the 203rd squadron. ``You try to hug them and encourage them. Let them know we're here, that we're family.''

The C-23 Sherpa, built in Northern Ireland and modified for the military in West Virginia, can carry up to 30 passengers and provides troop and equipment transport, airdrop and medical evacuation.