Rumsfeld: Hostile fire not likely factor in crash
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. defense officials Thursday downplayed the possibility that hostile fire caused a Marine Corps KC-130 refueling plane to crash into a mountainside in western Pakistan.
All seven Marines aboard the plane died as the aircraft prepared to land about 8:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m. ET) Wednesday at a forward operating base in Shamsi, Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
"There is no evidence that it was anything other than an aircraft crash," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.
"Their deaths, along with that of the U.S. Special Forces soldier last week, underscore the fact that the mission in Afghanistan remains difficult and remains dangerous."
The plane was minutes away from concluding the final leg of a "multi-stop mission" when it went down, a Marine spokesman in Kandahar said. Witnesses reported the plane appeared to be on fire on its final approach when it struck the mountainside.
The plane, built in the mid-1970s, was not equipped with a flight recorder, Marine Col. Randolph Alice told reporters. Autopsies will be performed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The seven victims belonged to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, a unit known as the "Raiders" and based at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, north of San Diego, California.
The squadron has an "enviable safety record," with 209,000 "mishap-free" hours, Alice told reporters Thursday at Miramar.
Four of the victims were married, said Marine Maj. T.V. Johnson, and some had children.
"In the Marine Corps, we pride ourselves on taking care of our own," Johnson said. "Our prayers and thoughts are with the families who have lost, and right now our focus is providing support to them."
One of the victims was the first woman to die in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters. Her father said his daughter died doing a job that she loved.
"I'm real proud because she was proud, she was proud of her job," said Matthew Winters Sr.
A total of 18 Americans have died since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, including one CIA agent killed while interrogating Taliban fighters at a prison near Mazar-e Sharif. The other 17 were military personnel.
"In our quest to save civilization, there are enormous sacrifices, and there is no greater sacrifice than the loss of life," President Bush said Thursday, noting that the victims of Wednesday's crash died for a "just cause."
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