- Associated Press - Monday, July 2, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A military cargo plane from North Carolina has crashed while fighting a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, killing at least one of the six crew members aboard and forcing officials to ground the fleet.

There was no official word on death or injuries, but the family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., confirmed they were notified early Monday that he had died in the C-130 crash Sunday evening.

The 42-year-old married father of two was a veteran pilot who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six crew members were aboard the C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte, N.C., said Lt. Col. Robert Carver. The plane crashed after dropping fire retardant.

“Obviously there were casualties,” Carver said. “We are also thankful there were survivors.”

Carver declined to give the numbers of those who died or survived, but confirmed there were some crew members being treated for serious injuries at a hospital in Rapid City, S.D.

Seven other firefighting C-130s are being held on the ground because of the crash, which comes as states in the West are grappling with one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever.

“People are shaken, as you would expect them to be,” Carver said. “They’re going to stand down today and talk about what happened.”

Fall River County, S.D., sheriff’s officials told the Rapid City Journal (http://tinyurl.com/86dpvvc) three crew members were taken to a hospital. Military officials said they could not comment.

Mikeal’s father-in-law, Ronald Partridge, said military officers came to the family’s home at 2:30 a.m. Monday to inform them of the crash. Partridge said they were told only two crew members had survived.

Rescuers have reached the wreckage, authorities said. The terrain at the scene is “very, very rugged, straight up and straight down cliffs,” said Frank Maynard, the Fall River County emergency management director.

Eight Air Force C-130s can be equipped to drop water or fire retardant. They’re flown by Air Force National Guard units at Charlotte, Port Hueneme, Calif., and Cheyenne, Wyo., and a Reserve unit in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The planes can be fitted with a system of tanks and pipes called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System or MAFFS. It can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in seconds.

Carver said Sunday’s crash was the first in the 40-year history of the MAFFS program.

The planes can be activated for firefighting duty if the rest of the private and government firefighting fleet is in use or unavailable. When on firefighting duty, the planes are under the U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., which is responsible for defending the U.S. and assisting civilian authorities in emergencies.

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