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Marine Aircraft Crashes in Pakistan

Aired January 9, 2002 - 13:41   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are interrupting President Bush to take you directly to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Marine Major Chris Hughes talking about the downing of a Marine KC-130 aircraft in Pakistan.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

MAJOR CHRIS HUGHES, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Yes, OK. They are off loading. They are going to be here a while. You want me to just kick it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

HUGHES: OK. At approximately 10:15 a.m., Eastern Standard Time today, a U.S. Marine KC-130 crashed into a mountain near Shamsi, Pakistan. Seven U.S. Marines were aboard the aircraft. The flight originated from Jacobabad, Afghanistan (sic) and was on a multi- mission stop. The aircraft was making its landing approach at the time of the crash. Its final destination was the forward operating base at Shamsi.

The names of the service members are being be withheld pending notification of the next of kin. The incident is under investigation. I will go ahead and entertain your questions at this early stage. It's going to be really difficult to give you any more than the limited information that we have.

We have no information on that at this time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

HUGHES: At this early juncture, we don't know the -- what the causes of this incident are. The terrain is described as difficult. Rescue crews are working their way to the aircraft at this time. To the best of our knowledge, they have not yet arrived on the scene.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

HUGHES: The area has been one that we have been operating out of before.

QUESTION: The status of the crew and the (OFF-MIKE).

HUGHES: At this juncture, the status of the crew is unknown. That's all we've got at this juncture. We will continue to keep you posted as we get new information regarding this. Thanks.

WOODRUFF: We have been listening to Marine spokesman Major Chris Hughes talking to us in Kandahar, Afghanistan, bringing the bad news, the confirmation from there that at 10:15 this morning, Eastern time, that's here in the United States, a U.S. Marine aircraft went down, crashed in Pakistan near the border of Afghanistan, crashed into a mountain, he said, near the town of Shamsi. The plane was on approach coming back or attempting to land after what he called a multi-mission flight. It had originated in Jacobabad, Afghanistan (sic) and was attempting to land. He said there were seven service members on board. Their names are being withheld pending notification of their family.

He said, at this early stage, it's just too early to know what the cause might have been. It is difficult terrain, he said, where this plane went down. He said there are rescue crews trying to get their way -- trying to get to the crash site. But he said to the best of our knowledge, they have not arrived there yet. The status of the crew is unknown.

Joining me here in the studio in Washington, military analyst, retired U.S. Air Force general, Don Shepperd. General Shepperd, we assume pretty bad news about the fate of the crew.

RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Judy. It doesn't sound good when he says it crashed in a remote area and flew into a mountain with seven on board. And there are reports that it was on fire before that. Whether that's true or not to be seen, but does not sound good at this juncture. Hopefully there will be some survivors.

WOODRUFF: General, again, this type of plane, multi-mission flight -- it's made several stops, we assume. What do we believe it might have been doing?

SHEPPERD: Right. The major reported that it came out of Jacobabad Afghanistan. Jacobabad is actually in Pakistan. It's hard to say. It can refuel helicopters. It can refuel jets as we see the pictures of here. It is a very versatile and venerable airplane. It's been around since the early '50s, 1954 is when the first model came out. Over 2,000 of them in service around the world, have been manufactured down there in Marietta, Georgia near CNN.

It's a work horse. It makes short-field landings. It can carry around 50,000 pounds of cargo, 92 combat troops, around 68, 70 paratroopers. It's used all over the world everyday. It's a real, real work horse in the tactical field. Again, what they were doing on this, whether they were refueling helicopters or jets or whether they were carrying cargo and passengers, too early to tell. We are hoping for the best, Judy.

WOODRUFF: General, you were saying earlier there were some reports perhaps of a fire on board as it was coming in?

SHEPPERD: Yes. The early reports that we have seen on the wires, which again are almost always wrong. That's why we are so careful about releasing information on crashes from the Pentagon until you, first of all, notify the families and also until you really get the true skinny from rescue teams to report what went wrong. People on the ground are notoriously unreliable in reporting what they have seen.

On the other hand, it is nighttime over there. And they say rescuers have not reached the site yet. That's another bad sign.

WOODRUFF: All right. We think it is approaching midnight there. It's about nine-and-a-half hours ahead of Eastern time, I believe.

General, also joining us from Islamabad, Pakistan is Tom Mintier, CNN correspondent there. Tom, what can you add to any of this?

TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, the Pakistani government confirmed indeed the crash of this KC-130. The designation KC is refueling, according to the Pentagon. Pakistani officials said most of the information, if not all, will come out of the Pentagon. It was a U.S. aircraft en route from Jacobabad, as you heard. This is about 450 kilometers out of Quetta, southwest of Quetta. It is at Shamsi, which is one of several Pakistani air bases, military air bases that are being allowed to be used by the United States for logistical operations.

Since after September 11, when Pakistan agreed to assist the United States in the war on terrorism, they provided several of these air bases. And Jacobabad was one that had several demonstrations outside it when the first U.S. military planes started making their routes in there and out. Again, according to the Pentagon, as you said, seven U.S. Marines on board. Our reports on the ground that the plane was indeed trying to make a landing. At this Shamsi air base and that an eyewitness on the ground reported that it was indeed on fire before it crashed into the mountain side.

Again, scant details because rescue crews -- it is, as you said, approaching midnight here in Pakistan -- rescue crews on the way to the scene. We have one of our staff members down in that area who is making their way to the scene. It is, as you heard the Marine major in Kandahar say, on the side of a mountain. So it is going to be extremely difficult to get into that area. It's about an eight-hour car drive away from Quetta, to give you some idea how long it takes to get to this location, a very remote location.

But the KC-130s indeed have been used for refueling throughout this air campaign in Afghanistan, with most of that logistical support coming from several air bases here in Pakistan where the KC-130 of the U.S. Marines has apparently crashed tonight -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Tom, we know that early on in the war, there was one, at least one, incident of hostile fire there in Pakistan. But is the sense now that its unlikely that this could have been a result of hostile fire because of where it happened?

MINTIER: Well, it's really going to be difficult to say until the investigation is completed. But according to people in the Pentagon, the early word is that no enemy fire was detected, that the plane was on fire before it crashed into the mountain side which is, you know, any time you fly is always a danger and a difficulty with that much fuel in the air. And if this was a refueling aircraft, additional danger in the air, not just at a time of an accident.

So the investigators are going to be looking very closely to see what indeed may have caused this crash. I'm not sure about the KC- 130, but I think it had the ability to launch countermeasures if indeed there was the possibility of something being launched from the ground. But, so far, the early word out of the Pentagon is that no hostile fire was apparently involved in this, that it simply crashed into the mountain side after catching on fire.

WOODRUFF: All right. Tom Mintier joining us from Islamabad, giving us a sense of what the Pakistani government is saying about this. Also who's been joining me, General Don Shepperd, CNN military analyst.

Once again, the plane went down 10:15 Eastern time. By my calculation, that's about 7:45 p.m. in Pakistan, give or take some time. But we can assume it was dark. And as we have just been reporting, the plane apparently crash into a mountain near the town of Shamsi, the Shamsi base, which is close to Quetta, about 120-some miles from Quetta. Again, we are watching for more information on this. The Pentagon now confirming that there were seven Marines on board. Rescue crews trying to reach the crash and the crew members right now. We will bring you more information as we get it -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Judy, I think we do have some more information coming in right now. Our very own Bill Hemmer is in Kandahar. And Bill has been talking with some of the Marines after that press conference has pretty much wrapped up. He did get some more information for us. Let's check in with him right now. Bill, what's the word?

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Leon, good evening from Kandahar. I can tell you this is not good news. The Marines do not take this very lightly at all. In fact, when the word started drifting to this base here several hours ago, it was quite evident we could see it on the faces of a number of Marines gathered here. We are now hearing that these seven Marines were part of the 26th MEU, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. At this time, as you can well understand, Leon, there is a lot of concern right now for next of kin, a lot of concern for families. In fact, we were told to put a lid on it out of respect for the families just about 90 minutes ago to give the Marines basically an idea and give them some time to let the families and make sure they are notified.

We understand they have not been all notified at this time, but certainly there is great concern in that circle. And as you can imagine also with the Marines coming into Camp Rhino in late November, the 26th MEU was part of that. So was the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Later they came to here to the airport in Kandahar in the first part of December, about a month ago right now as we look back at the calendar. And this is a group that has performed well beyond its capabilities here as a unit. This is an expeditionary unit. Normally they stay by the seas, stay by the water. They're amphibious in nature.

Right now they are operating in a landlocked country. For an amphibious group, they have pulled off something right here that many people have thought they could not do in the past. I can tell you also though, in addition to that, it has been quite amazing, if you think about it here. The silver lining, if there is one in such a tragedy, could be just the sheer number of flights that we have seen on a daily basis. You know, they have had well over 1,200 flights in the past four weeks come in to this airport alone. That doesn't account for the number of planes that have taken off in carriers and the three different forward bases operating in Pakistan. There's also a base in Uzbekistan that's up and running. And if you think about the sheer volume of aircraft, the number of flights that have taken place going back to the 7th of October, it is amazing that we have not seen more of this, but certainly the U.S. military quite vigilant to make sure accidents like these do not happen often.

Again, seven Marines we're told right on board that plane that went down around Shamsi, Pakistan. For those who might be familiar with the area, the town of Quetta is located just east of there. And for any journalist who gets in this part of southern Afghanistan, you to go through Quetta. We know that Shamsi has been set up. We know the U.S. military has been flying in and out of that location, Jacobabad another one and a third forward base in Pakistan. In all though, Leon, again there is a sense of deep sadness here in Kandahar. No one likes to see this go down. But again, many Marines would tell you it is part of their mission and part of their duty right now at Operation Enduring Freedom -- Leon.

HARRIS: Bill, that's quite understandable. Let me ask you something quickly about the sheer number of flights that have been taking off and landing in that area. Is there any talk at all about scaling back the schedule of flights there because of this accident?

HEMMER: I can tell you, Leon, it's been quite extraordinary. Even tonight, the flight operations taking place on the runway just to my right here, about 30 yards, haven't slowed down one bit. In fact, it was very intense here for the first three hours of darkness. You know, here in Kandahar, the area is not deemed safe or secure to fly during daylight hours. That's why we see so many flight ops, flight ops the military refers to them, taking place right when the sun goes down.

Many times, we have seen, Leon, 35 flights come in here, flying in tons and tons of cargo. I think the date, if my numbers are slightly inaccurate, I can tell you roughly 1,200 flights. I mentioned before, already half a million tons of cargo have come into Kandahar alone and that does not account, Leon, as I mentioned, for the other military activity taking place in eastern Afghanistan, the activity that went on into Bagram, the air base north of Kabul. There is a substantial amount of air activity in and around this country 24 hours a day. And to be more direct on your question, Leon, no, it has not changed or slowed down one bit. We can anticipate at this point, based on the activity we have seen in the past three hours, it will not slow down either -- Leon. HARRIS: All right. Good deal. Thank you very much, Bill. Bill Hemmer reporting live for us late in the evening there in Kandahar. Get some rest, Bill. We thank you very much for that.

And I believe that this report does gives us a good reason to take the Pentagon at their word. Whenever they tell us in their briefings that this is still a very dangerous operation that is underway in Afghanistan, despite the fact that they are not encountering much resistance.

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