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RESPONSE TO TERROR

'Unspeakable Loss' Shakes Marine Base

Military: At Miramar, service members and their families rally at the homes of the seven crash victims stationed there.

January 11, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — As investigators Thursday tried to determine what caused the deadly crash of a Marine Corps plane on a cargo mission in Pakistan, Marines here mourned the loss of seven colleagues.

"We are still in a state of shock," said Lt. Col. Carl Parker, commanding officer of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. "There's no way to prepare for such an unspeakable loss."

One of the squadron's planes, a KC-130 Hercules, crashed as it approached a military airfield called Shamsi. Six crew members and a radio operator, all from the San Diego base, were killed.

The incident marked the largest loss of life for the U.S. military in the Afghanistan campaign and the death of the first female service member in the war.

"The loss of seven of our brave Miramar Marines has rocked our community," San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy said.

Defense officials said there is no evidence to suggest that the plane--on a fuel hauling mission--was shot down by enemy fire during the night flight.

In a military housing complex near the Miramar base, Marines and their tearful spouses rallied at the homes of the crew members to provide emotional support to the families.

"It's miserable," said Capt. Kent Kroeker, a KC-130 pilot. "I don't have words to express how bad it feels to lose someone you love. It makes me sad that chance conspired to take this air crew from us."

As Kroeker spoke to reporters, three women pushing baby strollers converged on one house. "It's a real close-knit community here," Kroeker said. "People stand up for each other."

Almost all the flying in Afghanistan has been at night to avoid possible attack from Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, some armed with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles.

"These guys are flying constantly," Kroeker said. "The last detachment that returned to Miramar from Afghanistan looked really ragged. We take off and land in austere conditions, fly at low levels and close to the terrain. It's pretty rough doing that day after day. It's very grueling. The cumulative effect starts getting to you."

The KC-130s have played a key role in the U.S. campaign by transporting cargo and troops and refueling helicopters and attack aircraft in flight.

The latter capability is particularly important because Afghanistan is a landlocked country and much of the bombing campaign has been waged by Navy and Marine Corps warplanes based on aircraft carriers in the northern Arabian Sea.

Midair refueling allows the planes to reach their targets deep inside Afghanistan and to "loiter" over those targets waiting for opportunities to strike.

"The KC-130s helped us bridge the long distances," said Maj. Guillermo Canedo, a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. "As an amphibious force, we just could not have done this mission without the refueling capability."

Among pilots, praise for the KC-130 and other refueling "platforms" is high. "We'd be out of business without them," said Capt. R.C. Thompson, F/A-18 Hornet pilot and commander of the air squadrons aboard the carrier John C. Stennis.

Despite the age of many of the KC-130s--some nearly 40 years old--Marine Corps officials said the plane has one of the best safety records among military aircraft. The last "Class-A accident"--involving loss of life or $1 million in damage--occurred in 1977, Canedo said.

Parker said that the Miramar squadron's last accident was 27 years ago and that the squadron has flown more than 200,000 accident-free hours. Five of the squadron's 14 KC-130s have been deployed to assist in the war on terrorism.

The Marine Corps identified the dead as Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft, 29, of Redding, Calif., the pilot; Capt. Daniel G. McCollum, 29, of Richland, S.C., the co-pilot; Gunnery Sgt. Stephen L. Bryson, 36, of Montgomery, Ala.; Staff Sgt. Scott N. Germosen, 37, of Queens, N.Y.; Sgt. Nathan P. Hays, 21, of Lincoln, Wash.; Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Bertrand, 23, of Coos Bay, Ore.; and Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, 25, of DuPage County, Ill.

Winters was a radio operator based at Miramar.

In keeping with military policy, each of the seven families received the news from Marines who visited their homes. The Marine Corps will provide the families with spiritual, medical and financial support.

Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 has taken part in every U.S. military action since it was activated as a utility squadron April 1, 1943.

Its logo, which looks similar to that of the Oakland Raiders football team, shows an aircraft between a pair of crossed swords, beneath the word "Raiders."

The U.S. Central Command said the four-engine plane took off from Jacobabad, Pakistan, and was making multiple stops.

Officials have found no evidence of any attack, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.

He added that "the fireball occurred, according to the best evidence we have, as it hit the ground--not before it hit the ground."

Investigators had reached the scene early Thursday but were unable to remain amid bad weather on a ridge inaccessible to vehicles.

They returned later and were working on recovering victims' bodies, defense officials said.

President Bush said in a visit to the Pentagon to sign a defense spending bill, "America recently has been reminded that in our quest to defend freedom--and really in our quest to save civilization--there are enormous sacrifices, and to no more greater sacrifice than loss of life."

At the Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, where the KC-130s have been based, Marines lowered the U.S. flag to half-staff.

A replacement plane and crew from Miramar will go to Afghanistan to assume the duties of the plane that crashed.

"The mission goes on," Parker said.

*

Staff writer John Hendren in Washington and special correspondent Paul Levikow in San Diego contributed to this report.

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