LEFLORE CO., MS (WMC) - Details remain sparse days after a military plane came crashing down in Leflore County, Mississippi, killing 15 Marines and one sailor.
The plane departed from Cherry Point, North Carolina, en route to El Centro, California, carrying weapons and ammunition. It was expected to continue to Yuma, Arizona, after stopping in California.
Investigators said the KC-130 likely exploded in mid-air before crashing. Debris was located on both sides of Highway 82. Military investigators said there are two large impact areas that are approximately a mile apart.
"Air traffic control lost radar contact. Shortly thereafter, large plumes of smoke were discovered in the Itta Bena, Mississippi area," said Brigadier General Bradley S. James, commanding general of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. "More specifically, two large impact areas are half a mile north of Highway 82 and half a mile south of Highway 82. Indications are something went wrong at cruise altitude. There is a large debris pattern."
That debris prompted Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to issue a warning against taking items from the crash site. It was a message his team reiterated on Wednesday.
"It's very important to know that none of this stuff should be touched. Removal of anything from any of these areas could be subject to criminal prosecution," Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher said.
If anyone in the area finds debris, they are asked to immediately call 1-800-ATF-GUNS.
The plane crash in Mississippi was the deadliest Marine Corps aviation accident since 2005 when 31 Marines were killed in a CH-53E crash in al-Anbar Province in Iraq.
"What happened Monday is a grim reminder of the sacrifice of the sailors, Marines, airmen, who serve our great country," Fisher said. "Even though they weren't in a combat situation, it is a loss for families and out of respect for those families, we appreciate the prayers and support of the great people of Mississippi."
The identities of the 16 people killed in the crash are still unknown. Officials have confirmed all the families have been notified. They do not plan to release the names of the victims until at least 24 hours after next of kin is notified.
"Family members have been notified and out of respect for the families, we will not release names or specifics as of now," James explained. "Expect those names in the next few days."
Nine of the Marines were from New York, six Marines were from North Carolina, and the one Navy corpsman was from North Carolina.
Four of the service members have been identified by family members to the public. Click here to learn more about the four Marines killed.
Steps officials will take to clear crash site
- Recover: Officials will work to recover the bodies and effects of those on board the plane. This phase also includes the notification of next of kin.
- Preserve: Investigators will work to preserve the impact sites and equipment. They are asking the public to avoid touching any debris from the crash. Officials warn anyone who does remove debris from the crash site is subject to prosecution.
- Investigation: Officials will work together to determine what brought the plane down and caused the crash.
- Cleanup and restoration: It could take days to get the crash site cleaned up. Officials said during this process residents may hear a smaller explosion.
"The ordinance team may be disposing of some devices to render them safe. If the public hears an explosion, small explosion in that regard, there should be no reason for alarm," Commissioner of Public Safety of Mississippi Marshall L. Fisher said.
Authorities are already pursuing at least one criminal investigation against someone for removing debris from the crash site. Officials are asking if you do happen to find or see debris from the crash: Don't touch it. Immediately call 1-800-ATF-GUNS.
Salvation Army provides help to service members
As investigators and volunteers work at the crash site to recover items for the investigation and clean up debris, the Salvation Army is providing them with the basics.
"We are just trying to come alongside and do whatever we can," Salvation Army Greenwood officer Jamaal Ellis said.
Ellis and his team of volunteers are offering food and cold water to those at the crash site searching the soybean fields and working the KC-130 crash site.
"We are encountering men and women that have been out since the previous evening just out in the heat and the mosquitos of Mississippi," Ellis said. "I was speaking with one of the servicemen, I said 'Hey, you men have a lot that you are facing these days so the last thing I want you to worry about is where your meal is coming from'."
Ellis said the Salvation Army is not only providing provisions but also healing for the broken hearted.
"In talking with some of the guys and seeing their grief, their sorrow and things that they are facing, my heart just breaks for them, for their families that have suffered this loss so unexpectedly," Ellis said.
From veterans stopping to play TAPS on the side of the road at the crash site to laying flowers at the site, many have paid respects to the fallen service members in their own way.
One veteran stopped to play TAPS on the side of the road to honor the 15 Marines and 1 sailor.
Another retired service member, Sgt. Maj (ret) Joe Lee of Indianola paid tribute to the fallen by laying a wreath on the side of the road at the crash site. Lee, an Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraq Freedom veteran, has 42 years of service with the military.
Lee said the tragedy has impacted the entire country.