Two Marine AH-1W Cobra pilots killed in a crash that sparked a 120-acre brush fire during a training exercise Monday at Camp Pendleton were identified Tuesday.
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The pilots who were killed in the incident were identified as Capt. Jeffrey Bland (pictured right) and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann (pictured left), both assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Bland is a Champaign, Ill. native who was commissioned in the Marine Corps on June 10, 1997.
Heitmann is a Mendota, Ill. native who was commissioned in the Marine Corps on May 5, 2008.
Heitmann's three roommates who he also flew with were shocked by news of his death.
Their next door neighbor, Ollie Euler, told 10News she was saddened by the loss of a local hero.
"It's heartbreaking because anybody can have a next door neighbor, but we have four amazing Marine heroes and we've just been blessed with their presence," she said.
Euler added, "I heard a news bulletin that said the Cobra had crashed and my heart sank because I worry about my boys
These are my boys."
Euler said her other "boys" broke the news to her that Heitmann had died in a crash.
"It's just too big a loss," she said.
Bland's personal decorations include two Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals, Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, Air Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, and the Korean Defense Service Medal.
Heitmann's personal decorations include the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
"[Heitmann] really wanted to just be the best helicopter pilot he could be," Euler said. "He will be forever in our hearts
. I just can't imagine what happened."
"During this difficult time, I ask that you pray for the families of the warriors that we have lost," said Lt Col. Robert Morgan, Commanding Officer of HMLAT-303.
An investigation is under way into the cause of the helicopter crash.
The twin-engine, two-seat AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter belonging to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed in the southeast corner of the base Monday near the community of Fallbrook.
The Marines died at the scene.
The fire grew quickly after the crash, burning 50 acres within three hours after the helicopter went down. It initially was moving near the base's border with the town of De Luz, but was confined to the base late Monday, a base statement said.
Units from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Fallbrook Fire Department are helping to put out the blaze.
One resident who lives nearby told 10News on Monday that he was not too worried about the fire.
"Other fires that used to be here
we never got out from the house, so we just watched it and everything," said Leo Elias, who lives in Fallbrook.
Camp Pendleton officials issued a release saying that the fire had grown to about 120 acres before it was eventually contained.
Officials said it is unclear whether the mishap was caused by mechanical or human error.
"We are conducting normal investigations which will take some time, but it's just too early to speculate on what caused this particular crash today," USMC Maj. Carl Redding said Monday.
The accident is especially tough because it comes a little more than two months after another Pendleton-based marine from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing died in a crash that injured five others.
"It's a tough time for all of us," said Redding. "Anytime we lose Marines whether in war or in training back here stateside
it's hard for all of us here."
The Marines have issued an "operational pause" on all aircraft training with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. The pause extends to aircraft training at the Yuma, Miramar and Camp Pendleton bases.
Regular training flights should resume on Thursday as the investigation continues.
Several accidents have happened in recent months involving Marine Corps training in Southern California, including a fatal accident in July.
In August, two Marines were ejected from their F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet as it plunged toward the Pacific Ocean. The two Marines spent four hours in the dark, chilly ocean before they were rescued. Both suffered broken bones and are undergoing rehabilitation at a San Diego hospital.
In July, a decorated Marine from western New York was killed during a training exercise when his UH-1Y helicopter went down in a remote section of Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego.
Another Hornet sustained at least $1 million damage when its engine caught fire on March 30 aboard the USS John C. Stennis during a training exercise about 100 miles off the San Diego coast. Eight sailors, a Marine and two civilians were injured.
The Navy has said debris in the engine is the suspected cause of that fire.
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