LEFLORE COUNTY, Miss. — A Marine Corps transport plane plunged into a soybean field in the Mississippi Delta, killing 16 service members and scattering fiery debris far across farmland and a rural highway, the military confirmed Tuesday.
Among the first witnesses to the crash scene Monday afternoon was David Habig, a crop-duster pilot who flew over the wreckage. “Lo and behold, all I see are bodies out in the bean field,” he said. “They were everywhere. It was horrific. I’d never seen anything like it.”
The plane was a KC-130 belonging to a Reserve unit, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452, or VMGR-452, nicknamed the “Yankees” and based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y., the Marine Reserve said Tuesday.
The flight, which took off from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, was headed to Naval Air Facility El Centro in California, the Reserve said in a statement. There were 15 Marines and one Navy corpsman aboard.
The military did not immediately identify the dead. In a statement, the Marine Corps said, “While the details of the incident are being investigated, our focus remains on providing the necessary resources and support to the family and friends of these service members as they go through this extremely difficult time.”
The crash occurred around 4 p.m. in Leflore County, between the small towns of Moorhead and Itta Bena, about two hours north of Jackson, the state capital. Habig, 60, said he was airborne at the time and got a call from the sheriff’s department asking him to fly to the site to check out reports of an accident.
“They were getting calls that something was on fire,” he said. “I don’t think they knew it was going to be that bad.”
Habig said he flew at 500 feet, maneuvering around a thick black column of smoke rising from the flames, and then descended to 50 feet to get a better look through the chest-high soybean plants.
“I could see holes in the beans,” Habig said of crops that had been torn apart by the impact. “I knew what it was. You could see what they were wearing.”
“They looked like they were in civilian clothes to me,” he said. “Most that I saw had on gray britches.”
Just a few days earlier, he said, he had sprayed fields near the crash scene and had turned his plane over the very soybean field where the wreckage now lies.
Military and local officials said the cause of the crash was unclear. The KC-130, a variant of the C-130 transport plane, is configured as a tanker for aerial refueling of other aircraft, but it can also be used to transport troops and equipment. The plane has a standard crew of four to six, though the number can vary.
The C-130, a four-engine turboprop built by Lockheed Martin, is a workhorse of the US military, a reliable and highly adaptable aircraft, with many different variants in use. The first versions went into service more than 60 years ago, and more than 2,500 have been built.
The model that crashed Monday was a KC-130T, a type built from 1983 to 1995 that is being phased out in favor of a newer model, the KC-130J. Among the active duty and reserve Marine units that fly KC-130s, only the one based at Stewart still uses that type, with 14 KC-130Ts.
“These birds are not so old that they need to be retired — at least, from the mechanic’s point of view,” said Alan Stinar, a former Marine sergeant and engine mechanic who was an inspector of KC-130s. “These planes are extremely reliable, and we harp on their safety.”
Many of the aircraft have their own personalities, and their tight-knit crews give them nicknames like “Storm Chaser” and “African Queen,” he said.
“They have a life to them, and the crews really love them,” he added.
The last crashes involving any types of KC-130 operated by the US military were in 2002 — one in Pakistan and one in California. The accident Monday was the worst military aviation accident in the United States in recent years, but far from the worst in history: In 1952, a transport plane crashed near Moses Lake, Wash., killing 87 service members.
Officials said they were proceeding cautiously with recovery efforts because of the flames and the fear of exploding ordnance.
“Equipment on board included various small arms ammunition and personal weapons,” the Marine Reserve statement said. “An explosive ordnance disposal team is at the scene as a precaution in the interest of safety.”
Edna Beavers was trimming the grass outside her house in Itta Bena on Monday afternoon when, she said, she glanced up and saw a huge plume of black smoke rising from a field about a mile away. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Beavers, 68, said in an interview Monday night.
Beavers said the plane crashed along County Road 547, a dirt road that connects acres of farmland between Itta Bena and Moorhead. There are few homes along the road, she said. A military jet later circled overhead, she said.
“That is a sad situation there,” she said.
President Trump, in a tweet Tuesday, called the Mississippi crash “heartbreaking.”
“Melania and I send our deepest condolences to all!” the president wrote.
Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican of North Carolina, said in a statement that the crash was “a tragic reminder of the dangers our service members are confronted with on a daily basis, including the training missions that are needed to help keep our nation safe at home and abroad.”