ITTA BENA, Mississippi — A trail of white smoke followed a plane spiraling to the ground at high speeds.
Then, a loud a bang just over the tree line.
“At first it looked like an acrobatic plane, like a stunt plane, blowing the smoke out the back,” witness Andy Jones said. “Then all of a sudden you realized that the smoke was coming off one of sides of the wing.”
Jones called 911 after he heard the plane hit the ground, describing the final moments before the impact that would kill all 16 people on board.
Among the dead were six Marines and a sailor from an elite unit based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the Marine Corps said Tuesday. The other nine Marines were from Orange County, New York, county executive Steve Neuhaus said.
‘He loved the Marine Corps’
The first confirmed victim is Gunnery Sergeant Brendan Johnson, a Vermont native who had been in the Marine Corps for 23 years.
“He loved the Marine Corps,” Brendan’s father Kevin told CNN. “He loved his job. He liked to fly.”
Johnson was a loadmaster on the KC-130 airplane, helping to manage the cargo in the back of the plane. In his time in the Marine Corps, Johnson traveled to Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Pacific as well as various war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan without any incidents in the plane known as ‘Hercules.’
“The old name for it used to be Hercules,” Johnson said of the plane his son flew around the world in. “The Hercules C-130s. That’s what’s surprising, they’re a very safe aircraft.”
While investigators try to determine why the plane crashed in western Mississippi on Monday afternoon, Johnson has no choice but to wait for answers about the crash that killed his son.
“They’re still calling it an accident. We still don’t know what caused it,” he said.
“We’re probably not gonna know for a long time.”
— WLBT 3 On Your Side (@WLBT) July 11, 2017
What we know
The plane was flying from a Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina to a western base before it crashed in Mississippi. There were 16 people on board, 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman. None of them survived the crash. Some of the personnel on board were headed to training before being deployed. An explosive ordnance disposal team is going through the crash site because the plane was carrying small-arms ammunition and weapons. The aircraft belonged to a Marine Forces Reserve refueling and transport squadron based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York.
The plane crashed in a soybean farm in Leflore County, Mississippi, about 100 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi. The crash happened just off of Highway 82, with debris from the plane landing on both sides of the road and scattering for miles, CNN affiliate KETV reported.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant tweeted after the incident warning people not to take debris from the scene of the wreck.
“If you find an item that you think is related to this tragedy, turn it over to authorities immediately,” he said. “I thank first responders for their hard work. Please stay away from the site and let them do their job.”
What is a KC-130 aircraft?
The KC-130T is a Marines variant of the C-130 Hercules. It was first deployed in 1983.
Often used for airborne refueling, the KC-130, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., also can be used to deliver cargo, troops and equipment.
The first KC-130s appeared in 1962. Its normal range of 1,150 miles as a tanker and 3,200 miles on cargo missions gives it access to a large area.
The maximum takeoff weight for the KC-130T is 175,000 pounds and its flight ceiling is 25,600 feet.
US Armed Forces and politicians respond
The Marines’ commandant expressed his “deepest condolences to the families of those killed in the aircraft mishap yesterday afternoon in Mississippi.”
“Please keep the families of our 16 fallen service members in your thoughts and prayers,” Gen. Robert Neller said.
The US Navy tweeted ” You are in our thoughts.”
In the wake of the crash, politicians also took to Twitter to offer their condolences.
President Donald Trump called the crash “heartbreaking.”
North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, sent a series of tweets responding to the crash.
Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker called the crash “tragic.”
“Saddened to learn of the tragic plane crash involving members of our military yesterday,” he said.
“May God comfort their families and friends.”