Military Officials Keeping Quiet On Investigation
DALLAS (AP) _ Tight-lipped military investigators set up camp Friday in a North Texas cow pasture where an Army helicopter crashed after catching fire in flight, killing 10 soldiers and injuring eight.
A special investigative team from Fort Rucker, Ala., searched in a light mist for pieces of the twin-rotor CH-47D Chinook, a workhorse cargo helicopter with a history of mechanical problems.
″We don’t have any information about what happened on board. ... The Army is investigating the crash, but anything else I tell you would be either rumor or speculation,″ said Capt. Michael Monnett of Fort Hood, north of Austin.
The copter was en route to Fort Hood from Fort Sill, Okla., went it went down Thursday about 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth. The death toll reached 10 Friday when a soldier died at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Fort Sill spokesman Richard Brown said Friday that the unit commander grounded the base’s seven remaining CH-47D Chinook helicopters and ordered inspections. Three soldiers from Fort Sill were among those killed.
Fort Hood officials said no decision had been made on whether to ground its fleet of Chinooks.
Mechanical problems had plagued the helicopter from the moment it took off from Fort Hood, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Saturday.
The newspaper said the problems forced the aircraft to land immediately after takeoff and again 20 minutes later in a pasture.
A soldier who leaped 35 feet from the burning craft before it crashed said a fire had broken out at its tail and that the soldiers had tried to move to the front to get away from the flames, Department of Public Safety Sgt. Robert Rankin said.
Officials at Fort Hood and Fort Sill would not comment on reports that the helicopter had undergone repairs hours before it crashed.
The Army grounded its entire fleet of 63 Chinooks for 1 1/2 months in 1985 after an accident injured eight soldiers. The CH-47D, which has a troop capacity of 44, is a modernized version of the craft used heavily in Vietnam.
Monnett said five crewmen from Fort Sill had flown the craft to Fort Hood, a roughly 300-mile flight, to pick up 13 soldiers for training at the Oklahoma post. The helicopter went down about two-thirds of the way through the return flight.
A Pentagon source who spoke on condition of anonymity said Army officials had been told ″there was some maintenance work done on the ground after the Chinook landed at Fort Hood.″
″But whether that’s germane to anything remains to be seen,″ the official added. ″The investigators will have to check into that. There’s no indication yet that mechanics worked on something at Hood that later could have caused a fire.″
Another Pentagon official said there was no evidence of an explosion aboard the helicopter while it was flying, only of a fire. ″The aircraft appears by and large to have been intact when it hit the ground,″ said that source.
An Army source said in Washington that the pilot and co-pilot were both chief warrant officers ″and that means these guys had been around forever.″
″These were not beardless youth flying this chopper. You almost always get an experienced crew when you get on a CH-47,″ the Army source said.
The tight security around the investigation even extended to the injured soldiers, one of whom told the AP from his bed at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital that he had been ordered not to talk about the accident. Fort Sill Sgt. 1st Class Frank A. Prather, 33, of Daytona Beach, Fla., said he could not even discuss his medical condition.
Witnesses said the helicopter was tilted forward at a 45-degree angle, puffing smoke and descending rapidly when it sliced through a power line and went down.
″All of a sudden a little thin streak of smoke came out of it and there was a small explosion on the right side underneath it,″ said Joe Haworth, who was working near the crash site. ″Then it put out a little more smoke and it flew straight for a ways, then parts went to coming out of it.″
″Some of them (injured) were just sitting there screaming,″ said 17-year- old Dale Christopher, a Chico High School student who was among the first on the scene. ″And they kept asking us ‘Help us. Help us.’ And then we’d say ‘Help is on the way.’ That’s all we could do for them.″