FALLON, Nev. — A mid-air collision of two Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters that left two women Marines dead could have been much worse, and it's a miracle there were seven survivors, a Marine spokeswoman said Monday after a memorial service for the victims.
Capt. Katie Haddock said the victims, Sgt. Brenda L. Schroeder, 29, and Cpl. Lisa Tutt, 23, both of Santa Ana, were sitting in the rear of one of the transport helicopters when it collided with a second aircraft at about 8 a.m. Saturday, 8 miles east of Fallon Naval Air Station.
The impact severed their helicopter, causing the rear section to land about 1,100 yards from the front section in which three men survived. They were the pilot, co-pilot and crew chief, said Haddock, public affairs officer for the 4th Marine Air Wing. The rotors remained attached to the front portion of the aircraft.
The other helicopter, with four men aboard, crash-landed in the desert more than a mile away and had only moderate damage, she added. Five of the seven men who survived the crash suffered only minor injuries.
"There is one aircraft that is virtually intact--it has been damaged, but it still looks like a CH-46 when you look at it," Haddock said. "The other aircraft is about a mile and a quarter beyond that. It's in two pieces, and the two are about 1,000 meters apart.
"The forward half, it is amazingly intact as well. It just looks like it's been severed. The back half is just demolished," she said, adding, "It's a miracle there were seven survivors. Normally, when a crash occurs, there's a fire and that's what takes the lives. But there was no fire, and I don't know why.
"It could have been much worse, and I know there are seven Marines certainly thanking God that they escaped."
The injured Marines who were treated and released by military doctors were identified as Col. George J. O'Connell Jr. of Mission Viejo; Lt. Col. W. Tom Reid of Lake Elsinore; Maj. S. P. Toth of Irvine; Maj. Warren E. Jones of Laguna Hills, and Staff Sgt. P. L. Gauthier of San Juan Capistrano.
The two Sea Knights were performing routine training maneuvers when the accident occurred.
A spokesman for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station has said three CH-46 helicopters from El Toro's Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 764 flew to Fallon a week ago to participate in a 14-day exercise nicknamed High-Roller. A total of 31 Marines from El Toro were taking part in the exercise to test the readiness of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, the Marine Corps' nationwide reserve wing, headquartered in New Orleans.
The two killed may be the first women to die in an aircraft training crash, although military records to confirm this were not immediately available during the holiday weekend.
Schroeder was a field radio operator assigned full time to the 4th Marine Air Wing. Her hometown was listed as Baltimore, Md. Her husband has declined comment on the crash.
Tutt, a graduate of La Quinta High School in Westminster who worked at a Fountain Valley drugstore, was a unit diary clerk during her part-time duties in the Marine reserves. Her parents have expressed frustration at their inability to get information about the crash from military authorities.
The impact of the collision appeared to slice in half the Sea Knight carrying Schroeder and Tutt, Haddock said. "The pilot and co-pilot and crew chief (were) in the very forward, and the aircraft severed directly behind that," in the passenger section where the two women were.
Haddock said there were no serious injuries to the survivors. "I believe the folks in the front half walked away," she said. "I certainly don't have any answer (for why they survived and the women didn't), and I know the crew members are asking the same question."
Haddock declined speculation on the cause of the accident, saying there would be no comment until the end of a Marine investigation, which, she said, "could take months."
A little more than 2 years ago, a Sea Knight belonging to the El Toro reservist group crashed on a night mission into a cloud-covered hillside only minutes after taking off from the Marine Corps Air Station. All three crew members were killed in the crash. The helicopter crew was training with night-vision goggles when they ran into the 2,300-foot-high ridge.
The accident was one of a string involving Army and Marine helicopter pilots using the controversial goggles. The night crashes led to a congressional investigation that is currently under way. But marine officials said the morning accident did not involve the use of night-vision goggles.