Questions linger after Marine Corps plane crash in Mississippi

Embargoed to Memphis, TN Sixteen people are dead in the crash of a Marine Corps airplane in Leflore County, Mississippi.

ITTA BENA, Mississippi — The KC-130T aircraft that crashed in western Mississippi this week, killing all 16 troops on board, left two impact sites, Marines Brig Gen. Bradley James said Wednesday. It’s not clear how far apart the sites are, but one lies about a half-mile north of US 82, and the other a half-mile south of the highway. It appears “something went wrong at cruise altitude,” the general said.

[Original story published at 10:46 a.m. ET]

A trail of white smoke followed the plane as it spiraled toward a soybean field in western Mississippi. It dropped below the tree line with a bang.

“At first it looked like an acrobatic plane, like a stunt plane, blowing the smoke out the back,” said Andy Jones, a witness to Monday’s crash. “Then all of a sudden you realized that the smoke was coming off one of the sides of the wing.”

Jones called 911 after he heard the plane hit the ground, describing the final moments before the impact that killed a Navy corpsman and all 15 Marines on board.

Six Marines and a sailor from an elite unit based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were aboard the KC-130T when it went down, the Marine Corps said. The other nine Marines were from Orange County, New York, County Executive Steve Neuhaus said. Orange County is home to Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

The plane departed from a Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, and was transporting the Camp Lejeune-based troops, along with their equipment, to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, for “routine small unit pre-deployment training,” according to a Tuesday afternoon statement from Marine Corps Special Operations Command. The seven belonged to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion.

A statement earlier Tuesday said the plane belonged to a Marine refueling and transport squadron taking personnel and equipment to Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.

It was not immediately clear if the plane was scheduled to stop at bases in both Yuma and California.

‘He loved the Marine Corps’

The only confirmed victim is Gunnery Sgt. 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, helping manage the cargo on board. In his time in the Marine Corps, Johnson traveled to Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Pacific as well as war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan without any incidents, Kevin Johnson said.

“The old name for it used to be Hercules,” Johnson said of the plane carrying his son. “The Hercules C-130s. That’s what’s surprising; they’re a very safe aircraft.”

Johnson has yet to receive any answers about the crash.

“They’re still calling it an accident. We still don’t know what caused it,” he said. “We’re probably not going to know for a long time.”

Crash site

The plane went down on a soybean farm in Leflore County, Mississippi, about 100 miles north of Jackson.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant warned people not to take debris from the scene.

“If you find an item that you think is related to this tragedy, turn it over to authorities immediately,” he tweeted. “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 version 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 deliver cargo, troops and equipment.

The KC-130 first appeared in 1962. Its normal range is 1,150 miles as a tanker and 3,200 miles on cargo missions.

The maximum takeoff weight for the KC-130T is 175,000 pounds, and its flight ceiling is 25,600 feet.

Response to crash

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 Tuesday.

Politicians also took to Twitter to offer their condolences.

President Donald Trump called the crash “heartbreaking.”

US Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, sent a series of tweets responding to the crash.

In one, he said the crash was “a tragic reminder of the dangers our servicemembers face daily, including training missions needed to keep our nation safe at home & abroad.”

CNN’s Tristan Smith reported from Itta Bena, and Paul LeBlanc wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Jason Hanna and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.