By Robert Burns
WASHINGTON – A U.S. military tanker plane crashed into a mountain in Pakistan, killing all seven Marines aboard, the Pentagon said. It was the worst U.S. casualty toll from the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Two of the Marines were from the Pacific Northwest. Sgt. Nathan Hays, 21, was from Lincoln, Wash. – about 45 miles west of Spokane. Lance Cpl. Bryan Bertrand, 23, was from Coos Bay, Ore.
“It’s terrible, but we’re proud of him,” said Bertrand’s father, Bruce. He said his son could have been home about a month ago, but volunteered for another tour of duty. “He didn’t want to be on the sidelines.”
Pentagon officials said there were no signs that the plane, a KC-130 used for in-flight refueling or hauling cargo, was brought down by enemy fire.
The crash occurred Wednesday night local time, and a search-and-rescue mission continued into this morning. The Pentagon identified the dead Marines shortly before midnight in Washington, D.C.
The plane crashed as it approached a military airfield called Shamsi in southwestern Pakistan. That air base is about 180 miles southwest of the city of Quetta, according to U.S. Central Command.
Witnesses reported seeing flames shooting from the plane before it slammed into the mountain.
A Central Command spokesman, Maj. Ralph Mills, said Marines and Pakistanis had approached the crash site, but no bodies had been recovered as of late Wednesday.
“We made it to the crash site on foot,” Mills said. “But they were unable to remain there. It is a very steep grade, and they were unable to get footing. The site is secure.”
Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Pakistan and the surrounding region, said the four-engine KC-130 Hercules took off from Jacobabad, Pakistan, and was making multiple stops.
President Bush said the crash was a reminder of “how serious the times are today.”
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the soldiers,” Bush said at a fund-raiser for the re-election of his brother Jeb as governor of Florida. “But I want to remind them that the cause that we are now engaged in is just and noble. The cause is freedom, and this nation will not rest until we’ve achieved our objective.”
In a brief exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know the circumstances of the crash or whether the KC-130 was on a refueling mission. “I’m going to wait for the investigation to be completed,” he said. “We’ve got some folks heading up there now.
“It is a tough, dangerous business over there,” he said. “They’re doing difficult things and they’re doing them darned well, and it just breaks your heart.”
Saeed Malangzai, a journalist who lives about 40 miles from the crash site, said the plane went down in mountains in southern Balochistan province.
“Residents saw flames from the burning plane before it crashed into the Lundi mountains,” Malangzai said.
Pakistani troops encircled the area, he said.
The KC-130 is a $37 million plane routinely used by the Marine Corps for in-flight refueling of helicopters. It is also used for troop and cargo delivery, evacuation missions and special operations support. It normally carries a six-person crew of two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer, mechanic and loadmaster.
The only other fatal crash of a U.S. military aircraft during the war in Afghanistan, which began Oct. 7, was an Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Pakistan on Oct. 19, killing two Army Rangers.
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