Two separate military probes are under way Friday into the deaths of six Camp Pendleton-based Marines and a seventh stationed in Arizona who were killed when two helicopters collided during a nighttime training exercise on the outskirts of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
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One investigation seeks to assign responsibility for Wednesday's crash and the other is looking at how to make inherently dangerous combat training safer by looking at equipment maintenance, training and procedures leading up to the crash, according to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's public affairs office.
The local Marines killed in the crash belonged to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at MCAS Miramar. However, they were stationed at Camp Pendleton, along with their aircraft, Miramar spokeswoman 1st Lt. Maureen Dooley said. MAW Marines train in Yuma on a weekly basis, according to Dooley.
The crash occurred about 8 p.m. Wednesday when a AH-1W "Cobra" and a UH-1 "Huey" aircraft collided in flight over a remote part of the Yuma Training Range Complex. Two Marines were aboard the Cobra, and five in the Huey.
No one survived the collision, which occurred in a section of the installation that extends into the far southeastern reaches of California, near the Chocolate Mountains.
The identities of the deceased Marines, who reportedly had been scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan, were withheld pending family notification. Public release of the names was expected to be on hold until later Friday, according to Dooley.
Family members told 10News one of the Marines killed in the crash, 33-year-old Justin Everett, was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in two weeks.
"He loved to fly. He loved to be on the helicopter," said Everett's mother, Patsy.
Patsy Everett, who lives in the Fresno area, described her son as a devoted husband and father of two. She also told 10News about an emotional conversation about the crash with her son's wife, Holly.
"She said, 'I'm really said. I hurt, but I can't be mad. I can't be angry about it because he was doing what he loved to do,'" Patsy Everett said.
The military will conduct an "intensive investigation" into the circumstances of the crash over the next few months, Dooley said.
Speaking to reporters, Col. Robert Kuckuk, commanding officer of MCAS Yuma, said preliminary information about the "tremendous tragedy" at his base was inconclusive.
"Exactly what happened during this particular operation, I don't know," he said. "Was it a live-fire exercise? I don't know, except that I know that they were carrying ordnance."
Kuckuk said training in the part of the station where the accident occurred -- a locale he described as "an excellent simulation for both Iraq and Afghanistan" -- would continue as investigators work to determine what caused the collision.
"When the mishap occurred, they witnessed it, I understand, and they notified officials back in Yuma that the mishap occurred," Kuckuck added.
"The Marine Corps ... will find out exactly what happened," he told news crews. "If we can take steps to prevent it from happening again, we most certainly will."
The colonel noted that the duties of military air crews are unavoidably hazardous, even during training and despite exhaustive safety measures.
"We understand ... that this is sometimes a dangerous profession," Kuckuk said. "We ... accept that despite our best efforts, that sometimes we're going to have accidents, and in those accidents, sometimes people are injured and killed."
Kuckuk added, "It's always bad when we lose airplanes. It's worse when we lose numbers of people."
Investigators from Camp Pendelton were at the scene all day Thursday, hunting for evidence, which will include flight logs and witness statements, but no black box. Black boxes are not standard in these types of helicopters.
Kuckuk said there were no radio communications from the helicopters just before the incident.
10News reporter Michael Chen asked Kuckuk, "Have you ever known darkness to be a primary cause?"
"Not to my knowledge
no," Kuckuk answered.
The sole Arizona-stationed casualty was one of the two pilots of the helicopters, according to a Marine gunnery sergeant interviewed by KNX Newsradio.
The 3rd MAW trains in Yuma on a weekly basis, Dooley said.
The remains of all seven Marines were airlifted out of the area and transported to Naval Medical Center San Diego Thursday.
Among the public figures offering somber responses to news of the accident were Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad.
"Anne and I offer our condolences to the families and friends of the Marines who died last night," Brown said. "We honor their bravery and sacrifice."
Boxer, for her part, said her "thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these brave Marines who died in this tragic accident."
"We honor their service and all they have done for our country," she added.
Bilbray said the accident served as "a solemn reminder that the price our service members pay to protect our freedom doesn't just happen overseas during war."
"The training to prepare our men and women for combat can be just as dangerous," the congressman said. "This is a reality that our service members accept as part of their job. Our job as civilians is to never take their sacrifice for granted."
Over the last several years, accidents involving the same types of helicopters have claimed the lives of more than a dozen military personnel, most of them based in the San Diego area.
On Oct. 26, 2009, four Camp Pendleton-based Marines were killed when the helicopters they were in collided over southern Afghanistan. Cpl. Gregory M.W. Fleury, 23, and Capt. Eric A. Jones, 29, were in a Huey that crashed into a Cobra carrying David S. Mitchell, 30, and Kyle R. Van De Giesen, 29.
Four days later, a Camp Pendleton-based Cobra collided in flight with a Sacramento-based U.S. Coast Guard C-130 search plane near San Clemente Island, killing two Marines aboard the Cobra and seven Coast Guard members. Three separate military probes concluded there was no single factor that caused the crash.
More recently, a Marine pilot and his co-pilot were killed when their Cobra helicopter went down at Camp Pendleton on Sept. 19 during a training exercise, killing Capt. Jeffrey Bland, 37, and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann, 27. The crash sparked a brush fire that blackened about 120 acres near Fallbrook.
In July, USMC Sgt. Trevor Cook, 25, was killed and five other Marines were injured when a Huey helicopter went down in a hilly area in the northwestern reaches of Camp Pendleton, sparking a small brush fire that was quickly extinguished.
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