- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

A U.S. Air Force cargo plane carrying 10 service members on a training flight slammed into a Puerto Rican mountain Wednesday night, killing everyone aboard.

The plane a bulky four-engine MC-130H that belonged to the Air Force Special Operations Command was flying low in fog and rain when it crashed into a mountainside and broke apart in a heavily wooded area of the city of Caguas.

The crash, 15 miles south of San Juan, occurred about 10 p.m. Wednesday, said leaders of the State Emergency Management Agency of the U.S.-Caribbean Territory and Puerto Rican residents, who saw the disaster.

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Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, said military officials at the crash scene yesterday morning confirmed there were no survivors.

"This was a plane that went at speed meaning several hundred knots into the side of a mountain," Mr. Lucas said in a telephone interview.

He refused to identify any of the victims until relatives of all those killed were notified of their deaths. But he confirmed that seven of the victims were based in Florida and three in Puerto Rico.

It was the second accident in as many months involving a Combat Talon II, a special operations version of a C-130 cargo plane, the Associated Press reported. The other crashed in June while taking off from an airstrip in Afghanistan, killing three military personnel.

"It will be some time before we know what went wrong [in the Puerto Rican crash]. We may never know," said Mr. Lucas.

By late afternoon yesterday, the bodies or partial remains of seven of those killed had been recovered, Puerto Rican police said. A Puerto Rican reporter reached at police headquarters said in a telephone interview that pathologists indicated some bodies were complete and others dismembered. Some were burned, he said.

The search for the remaining three was suspended at dark and was to resume at first light, but rescuers feared there would be no bodies to find. The bodies still missing were those of the pilot, co-pilot and engineer, all of whom would have been in the cockpit, which took the brunt of the crash, Rafael Guzman, executive director of the State Emergency Management Agency, told AP.

Lt. Col. Nicolas Britto, spokesman for the Special Operations Command-South, said all the victims were in the Air Force.

Col. Britto and Mr. Lucas said recovery operations were slow. Recovery teams carrying stretchers and supplies climbed a narrow mountain trail made treacherous by mud, dense woods and soggy underbrush. Using ropes, they rappelled down an 80-foot drop to retrieve one body, AP reported.

"It's long, tedious work that's very, very difficult," Col. Britto, who is based at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in northern Puerto Rico, said in a telephone interview.

"There are no roads in the area," so recovery teams and crash investigators are "traveling overland on foot. The weather is not good. There is intermittent rain and fog" in the area, Mr. Lucas said at midday.

"It's also very hot and humid here," said Mr. Britto.

As the fog lifted yesterday afternoon, two forensic dogs arrived after an 1½-hour climb to join the search, AP said.

Despite the grueling work, Mr. Lucas said, the process of identifying remains was going faster than anticipated. The Southern Command is a joint military command that coordinates operations and training for special troops and others in the Caribbean and central and Latin America, except in Mexico.

Mr. Lucas confirmed that the demolished cargo plane and its regular seven-man crew were part of the Air Force Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three others on the plane were based in Puerto Rico.

The plane that crashed was on a training flight from Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in northern Puerto Rico to Borinquen Air National Guard Base on the island's west coast, Mr. Lucas said.

The nearest homes to the remote crash site are a two-mile hike away. Residents living in those homes told Associated Press they saw the plane strike the mountain, known as Monte Perucho, break in two and erupt in flames.

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