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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Base Commander Holds Press Conference

Aired March 12, 2003 - 14:15   ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, we have this news conference in Fort Drum, New York about the helicopter crash, the military helicopter crash -- let's go ahead and listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

MAJ. GEN. FRANK HAGENBECK, FORT DRUM BASE COMMANDER: Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Kenneth Miller, Staff Sergeant Brian Pavlich, Sergeant John Eichenlaub Jr., Sergeant Joshua Harapko, Specialist Lucas Tripp, Specialist Barry Stephens, Private First Class Shawn Mayerscik, Private First Class Tommy Young, Private First Class Stryder Stoutenburg, and Private First Class Andrew Stevens.

Currently in the Samaritan Medical Center here in Watertown are Specialist Dmitri Petrov and Specialist Edwin Mejia, and I just returned from visiting them.

Nine of the soldiers that are deceased or injured in the accident were from 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment. Seven killed, two survivors. Three soldiers are from the 2nd Battalion, 10th Aviation Unit, and one soldier is from 1st Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment.

We will have a memorial service this Friday.

We're also investigating why this tragic accident occurred. An Army Safety Center team is here now, and they'll conduct interviews, inspect equipment, review training records, examine personnel records, interview the chain of command, and review guidance and historical records.

There are no real limitations to what the board can look at. My deepest heartfelt condolences go out to all the families of these soldiers.

I'll take some questions.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the mood is like of the two soldiers that you visited in the hospital?

HAGENBECK: Obviously, they're very grateful that they're alive, but they're heartbroken and traumatized by the loss of their brothers in this division and our army.

QUESTION: Do they at all describe how they were able to live through this? I mean, how did they -- how were they able to escape death?

HAGENBECK: They're convinced that it was the hand of God that saved them.

QUESTION: What's their prognosis for recovery at this point?

HAGENBECK: It is -- we're cautiously optimistic. I will tell you that Mejia has got some broken bones in his lower extremity. He has good spirits, and his recovery is progressing very, very nicely. Petrov is in critical condition. He's talking. He's got some serious injuries that he'll have to get over, but again the doctors and he are cautiously optimistic that he'll fully recover.

QUESTION: Hi, general. Are the survivors able to shed any light on what might have caused this?

HAGENBECK: They did talk about it, but I'm not at liberty to pass anything on until the Safety Team has an opportunity to interview them.

QUESTION: And by calling this a tragic accident, does that suggest that it was indeed an accident, nothing involving sniper fire, something of that nature?

HAGENBECK: By all indications, it was an accident. No indications of anything other than that.

QUESTION: How long will the investigation take before you have some concrete answers?

HAGENBECK: I don't know that. It will take as long as we need to to get to the bottom of this.

QUESTION: Are Black Hawks flying now? Is there any (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

HAGENBECK: They are flying. There is no indication that there was anything wrong with the aircraft itself, the Black Hawks generically. And so we continue to fly and train.

QUESTION: Those are the ones you fly here. What others do you fly here?

HAGENBECK: We also fly the OH-58 Delta Kiowa, which is a scout- recon helicopter that carries two, and we're flying those as well.

QUESTION: Was there any history of problems with this particular aircraft?

HAGENBECK: They've sterilized -- or taken the maintenance records and they've got those, and I have not looked at those, and I'm not privy to them until the investigation is concluded, so I can't answer that.

QUESTION: General, are any of the men involved in the accident, were they -- have they been over in Afghanistan?

HAGENBECK: That's a great question. Of the nine infantry soldiers from 4th battalion, 31st Infantry, over half were Afghan veterans, to include the two survivors.

QUESTION: The two survivors were also Afghan veterans?

HAGENBECK: Yes.

QUESTION: Were they going to be deployed back to the gulf region?

HAGENBECK: This particular battalion is on what we call a deployment order, and they're standing by in the event that they're called for to the CENTCOM area of operations, yes.

QUESTION: Do you have any feedback from any of the other helicopters that were up in the air with this one?

HAGENBECK: Only in my brief discussions yesterday. This was the trail helicopter in a serial (ph) of three, and the initial reports were that no one on board the first two helicopters were aware of the accident.

(CROSSTALK)

HAGENBECK: Not that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Did the planes in the air talk with each other?

HAGENBECK: I don't know.

QUESTION: Could you describe more fully what a sling exercise is, what that entails?

HAGENBECK: Well, this was not a sling exercise, loading heavy equipment underneath the helicopter. This was a continuation of some ongoing air assault training that this battalion and these aviators from this great aviation brigade have been doing, literally, for weeks.

And it was very routine. It was a very short flight, originated at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield right here at Fort Drum, was overflying the training areas, and was to return. It was a designated route that's been flown many times by these pilots in particular, as well as the rest in that aviation lift unit.

KAGAN: We've been listening in to the latest from Fort Drum, New York, the Army base there. This is where the helicopter was based. That crash yesterday, 11 soldiers losing their lives. Two did survive. A lot of questions still about what went wrong in that training mission yesterday, also getting news that on Friday, there will be a memorial service for the deceased.

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