Three Marines and one Navy sailor are dead and one Marine is injured after a helicopter from the Yuma Marine base crashed 20 miles north of Yuma near the Colorado River, according to a military official.
The accident involved a search-and-rescue helicopter that crashed late Thursday afternoon while returning from a routine training flight near the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground. The crashed helicopter was one of four in the Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron at Marine Corps Air Station-Yuma.
The names of the dead and injured are being withheld for 24 hours until the families of the victims are notified.
Four military were pronounced dead at the scene at 12:30 a.m. today, said 1st Lt. Rob Dolan, MCAS public affairs officer. The bodies were being taken to Naval Medical facilities.
Marine officials would not confirm which facility received the bodies.
The closest facilities are in Camp Pendleton and San Diego, both in southern California.
The injured Marine was transported to Yuma Regional Medical Center by a MCAS-Yuma search and rescue helicopter. He was listed in stable condition this morning, according to the MCAS Yuma medical officer.
The cause of the accident is under investigation. MCAS spokesman Lance Cpl. Daniel Angel said he did not know the exact time of the crash or when the wreckage was discovered.
The crash site is near a wash roughly one half mile off of Ferguson Road near Ferguson Lake.
The helicopter was a HH-1N, also known as a Huey, and is known for operating at higher altitudes, high winds and high gross weight, according to a Naval Air Systems Command press release.
Search and rescue provides quick response rescue operations for military accidents in the immediate area of MCAS-Yuma as well as at area training ranges. It also responds to civilian accidents within a 100 mile radius from MCAS-Yuma. SAR averages approximately 20 to 40 rescues a year.
"On behalf of all the men and women aboard MCAS-Yuma, we extend our deepest sympathies to all the family members involved in this tragedy," said Sgt. Ryan O'Hare, of the MCAS-Yuma public relations office.
"These Marines and sailor were of the highest caliber and we will always remember their service to the Marine Corps, Navy and nation they proudly served," he continued. "These service members gave their lives to save the lives of others. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with their families during this very tragic time."
This morning, Yuma Mayor Larry Nelson ordered all flags in Yuma be lowered to half staff.
"Our sympathies go out to the families that have lost their fathers, and husbands and loved ones. This is just really a tragedy. They are not only U.S. Marines and Navy. They are our neighbors. They are part of our community."
Nelson stressed the painful irony that the victims of the crash had dedicated their lives to saving so many people.
"They put their lives on the line all the time. It's just sad that they lost their lives training to prepare for emergencies, to save the lives of others. These are what I call some real heroes."
Members of Yuma's veterans community expressed their grief today, stressing that the loss of a military man or woman impacts veterans just as did when they were active.
"We've lost a brother and I'm sorry to hear that," said former Navy corpsman Verne Chism. "It just jerks my chain down to hear this. I don't like it all for anyone do go in that way."
Chism serves on the executive board for the National Association for Medics and Corpsman.
He stressed that his heart goes out for the men and women stationed at MCAS-Yuma as they mourn the loss of colleagues and friends. He described how such a loss feels to active-duty military personnel.
"A loss like this puts them in a very somber mood," Chism said. "It's like losing a member of the family."
But he quickly added that military people, already famous for their camaraderie, become even more close knit when tragedy strikes.
"They'll bind together real close. They're going to take good care of each other."
Chuck Wullenjohn, YPG spokesman, extended his sympathies to MCAS-Yuma.
"Being that we are one of two military bases here in Yuma County we certainly feel very, very bad when this kind of thing happens, whether it is on our base or off our base," he said. "The Marines are our brothers and sisters in what we do. On behalf of YPG, we all feel very bad about this."
Today's tragedy reminded the mayor of the last local military incident that shattered Yuma - the June 2005 crash of a Harrier jet into a neighborhood that resulted in no injuries or deaths.
The aircraft had been loaded with bomb and cannon ammunition.
The investigation, released in June, found that as the pilot was preparing for landing, one of the reaction control systems failed, causing the aircraft to roll right.
The report concluded that there was no pilot error.
"We counted our blessings with the crash of the Harrier and we have this happen," Nelson said. "You just never want to see a day like this come by."
MCAS is an aviation training base home to several squadrons in Yuma specializing in air-to-ground aviation training for U.S. and NATO forces. A total of about 5,500 active duty Marines and sailors are stationed here.
YPG is 1,300-square-mile military reservation used to test combat systems and serves as a helicopter test center.
- Sun staff writers Darin Fenger and James Gilbert and Associate Editor - Assignments Jackie Leatherman contributed to this report.