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Marine Plane Had Emergency at High Altitude, General Says

GREENWOOD, Miss. — A Marine Corps transport plane that crashed in Mississippi, killing 16 service members, experienced an emergency at high altitude and left two debris fields a mile apart, a Marine general said on Wednesday, bolstering witness accounts that the plane broke up or exploded while in the air.

“Two large impact areas are half a mile north of Highway 82 and a half a mile south of Highway 82,” said Brig. Gen. Bradley S. James, commander of the Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve.

“Indications are something went wrong at cruise altitude,” he said. “There is a large debris pattern.”

The KC-130T, en route from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina to Naval Air Facility El Centro in California, crashed on Monday into a soybean field between the towns of Itta Bena and Moorhead, in the Mississippi Delta. It was ferrying members of the elite Marine Raiders special operations force and their equipment. After stopping in El Centro, the plane was to take them to Yuma, Ariz., General James said at a news conference a few miles from the crash site.

General James did not specify what he meant by “cruise altitude.” As a propeller-driven craft, the KC-130 family of aircraft does not fly as high as jet planes of similar size. It can go above 30,000 feet with a relatively light load, but it generally cruises below that level.

Appearing with General James, Marshall L. Fisher, commissioner of the State Department of Public Safety, warned that the wreckage contained explosives. He cautioned people in the rural area not to touch any debris, both for safety’s sake, and because removal of it could be a crime.

“There are items that are going to be recovered by teams on the ground; some of them may be unsafe,” he said. He later noted that “there are ordnance disposal teams in the area” who may be causing controlled explosions throughout the search.

The KC-130 family, consisting of four-engine turboprops, is a variant of C-130 transport, a venerable mainstay of the United States military. The KC-130T is designed for aerial refueling of other aircraft but can also be used to carry people and gear.

The aircraft that crashed bore registration number 165000 and was nicknamed Triple Nuts for the three zeros. It belonged to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452, or VMGR-452, nicknamed the Yankees, a Reserve unit based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City.

The plane was built in 1993. In its life, it refueled fighter jets patrolling the no-fly zone in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, and later it ferried troops and equipment into and out of the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, assignments that meant using rutted runways in dusty locales, according to records and photographs taken of it over the years.

Alan Stinar, a former marine mechanic who worked on this and other KC-130’s, and is a historian of the model, said it also took part in at least two missions in Africa.

“These things are workhorses that can do almost any job the Marines need them to do, and during the war they were very, very busy,” Mr. Stinar said.

According to federal aviation records, the plane was damaged in 2004, when a wind storm tipped it sideways onto one wing, while it was on the ground in Fort Worth. In 2010, a storm piled so much snow in the plane that it tipped forwa;rd, its tail in the air, Mr. Stinar said.

Six of the people killed were members of the Second Marine Raider Battalion, based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and one was a Navy medical corpsman assigned to that battalion. The other nine belonged to the Marine Reserve squadron at Stewart Base, General James said.

The military has not yet identified any of the dead, but in social media posts and private conversations, people in the towns around both Stewart and Camp Lejeune are searching for clues and sharing unofficial word about victims.

At Stout’s House of Pain, a tattoo parlor in Jacksonville, N.C., that is popular with Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune, one of the artists, Sabrina Cruz, said she had been trying to learn if she knew any of the victims. After years of war, there is a grim familiarity to her questions, and to the wait for answers.

“It’s definitely unnerving to know that some people, some clients that we’ve gotten close to have been killed,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of clients who have passed away over the years, whether it’s been suicide or killed overseas or car accidents.”

Judging by past experience, she predicted that some Marines will come into the shop this weekend, after payday, to get tattoos memorializing the dead. They often come together on such occasions, she said, swapping stories and ordering up elaborate tributes that artists in the area will typically work on for $140 an hour.

KC-130T’s were built between 1983 and 1995, and are being phased out in favor of the newer KC-130J model. The squadron at Stewart is the only Marine unit still using the KC-130T. Experts say that with proper maintenance, the planes’ age should not be a safety issue.

But recent reports have raised concerns about the maintenance of the military’s aircraft, citing a decline in the percentage that are ready for duty at any particular time.

Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks said numerous witnesses saw the Marine plane before it crashed, and “they are saying it was on fire.”

His force of about 20 deputies is among several federal, state and local agencies combing through trees and crops, looking for pieces of the plane or its contents.

“One whole engine was found this morning,” he said. “I’ve been in the woods this morning. It’s terrible. Scattered everywhere. Debris.”

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