Military To Begin Crash Recovery

Sunday, March 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNADILLA, Ga. (AP) — Military officials on Sunday were to begin recovering the remains of 21 National Guard personnel killed when their twin-engine C-23 Sherpa crashed into a field south of Macon in heavy rain.

Knee-deep mud prevented investigators from removing the bodies on Saturday.

Three Army personnel and 18 Air National Guard members were aboard the plane, said John Birdsong, a spokesman for Robins Air Force Base.

All 18 of the transport plane's passengers were members of a Virginia-based military construction and engineering crew on a routine training mission, said a spokeswoman for the Virginia Air National Guard.

The plane's pilot and two other crew members were members of the 171st Aviation Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard, officials said.

Identities of the victims were expected to be released by midmorning Sunday.

Also Sunday, Col. Dan Woodward, an Air Force spokesman, said that in-flight data and voice recorders had been recovered, but it had not been determined if they were working.

The victims will be taken to an Air Force casualty center in Dover, Del., but officials were not sure how long the recovery would take because of deep mud in the area, which has had 3 inches of rain since Saturday morning, said Lt. Col. Deborah Bertrand, a Robins spokeswoman.

``Recovery operations are going to be difficult and protracted,'' she said. ``It's a quagmire.''

John Allen Bryant Sr., 57, heard the crash in a field on his farm, about two miles from his house. He rushed to the site.

``It was just a horrible, horrible scene,'' Bryant said in a telephone interview. ``The plane was just about completely gone. There was very little of its stuff left. It just about all had burned up. It was just awful.''

Dennis Posey, a farmer who lives about a half-mile from the field, said he jumped into his pickup and headed to the crash site after hearing a loud thud. The plane exploded only moments after it landed, Posey said.

``As soon as I seen that plane, I knew nobody could come out of that,'' Posey said.

Neighbor Mike Bryant said he could tell the plane was in trouble as it pass overhead.

``I turned around and I saw it just fall to the ground. It exploded. It wasn't on fire until it hit the ground. Then it exploded and burst into flames,'' said Bryant.

The National Transportation Safety Board is sending investigators to the scene and the military will convene a board of officers to investigate the cause of the 11 a.m. crash, Robins spokeswoman Faye Willson.

Heavy rains and winds swept the area throughout Friday night and Saturday as part of a huge storm system moving across the South.

The plane was assigned to the Florida National Guard's 171st Aviation Battalion and based at Lakeland, Fla. It had taken off at 9:57 a.m. from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach and was headed to Oceana Naval Air Station, Va. No trouble was reported then, said Air Force Capt. Carol Kanode, a field spokeswoman.

Late Saturday afternoon, families of the 18 Virginia-based victims — all members of the 203rd Red Horse Unit of the National Guard — gathered at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach. Families of seven of the squadron members met with the chaplains for most of the afternoon.

The Red Horse squadrons are rapidly deployable civil engineering units which can erect tent cities and other facilities for troops in the field.

``They have plumbers, electricians, cooks,'' Kanode said. ``They have everything you need to set up from nothing.''

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.

President Bush said he was deeply saddened at news of the crash.

``This tragic loss on a routine training mission reminds us of the sacrifices made each and every day by all of our men and women in uniform,'' Bush said in a statement.

In a joint statement, the Army and Air Force said each branch was deeply saddened by the crash.

The C-23 Sherpa aircraft can carry up to 30 passengers and provides troop and equipment transport, airdrop and medical evacuation.

Before Saturday's crash, the deadliest military aviation accident in Georgia occurred in 1986 at Fort Stewart when two Army helicopters collided, killing eight soldiers.