July 18, 2017 10:46:39 AM
Of the 16 servicemen killed in a military aircraft crash July 10 in Leflore County, one body had yet to be discovered when Columbus Fire and Rescue personnel arrived at the crash site at 5 a.m. Thursday. Their mission was to help find the fallen Marine.
CFR engineer Michael Miller said he and two fellow Columbus firemen were assigned to a 66-man search team covering at least three acres of Delta soybean and sunflower fields.
"For this occasion, it was all hands on deck," Miller said.
By 7:30 a.m. the team had begun a long line search, hunting for the final lost body and any weapons missing from the crash.
The group had scoured acres of land for almost two hours when it stumbled upon the Marine's body in a wooded area just southwest of a Leflore County sunflower field.
"When they first called and said they had found something, they said it was a Marine, and we were all excited to have been able to find something that soon," Miller said.
After the initial excitement, however, Miller said his search team seemed to realize the gravity of having completed a mission to find a lost military serviceman.
"It was a quiet moment," he said.
Miller said he tried to place himself in relatives' shoes as the search team took the body back to their headquarters.
"That was part of our mission, to find him and give his family closure," he said. "So, for me, that was my main goal -- to find him and get him back home."
A 'surreal' scene
According to Assistant Fire Chief Duane Hughes, Columbus' eight team members had no idea what their tasks would be before they set foot in the Delta early Thursday morning.
What they found was a scene some could only describe as "surreal."
CFR was assisting the Department of Defense in the search for missing weapons and equipment from a KC-130T Marine tanker that was traveling from New York to Arizona when it crashed west of Greenwood earlier that week. The aircraft was carrying 15 Marines, one Navy corpsman and military equipment when it exploded, scattering debris on either side of Mississippi Highway 82.
According to Hughes, who was in charge of managing resources for his team, the military plane looked like a structure that had endured a tornado.
"The plane was unrecognizable," he said. "... You could tell the parts apart, but they were not in order, not where you'd expect them to be. The team had seen pictures from news media, but they were all from above."
In the past, Hughes said, CFR has handled missing person reports and missing person and body recovery in neighboring counties, so they had realistic expectations for their assignments.
"What wasn't expected was the amount of area that needed to be covered," Hughes said. "It required an intense amount of walking."
Aside from the physical exertion, he said what the team discovered upon arrival at the main crash site exceeded expectations.
"There was a feeling of disbelief," Hughes said. "The military plane crashes we've been involved in in the past, we were denied access to the site of the crash. This was the first time to my knowledge that we were actually that close."
Hughes said there was a "somber, purpose-driven" mood among the close to 200 firefighters, law enforcement agents and recovery team personnel who came from all over the U.S.
"That's the everyday life of emergency response," he said. "You train hard and always anticipate the call, but it's tempered with the fact that your purpose of being there means someone else is having a bad day."
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