RAINIER — Remains of four aviators killed after two helicopters crashed during training at Joint Base Lewis-McChord were removed from the scene Tuesday as members of their unit took time to grieve the loss.
Army officials have not identified the deceased soldiers or the cause of the crash. An investigative team traveled to the site to begin work Wednesday morning. The two-seat reconnaissance choppers crashed after 8 p.m. Monday in the southwest training area of the sprawling base, killing all four on board, according to the Army.
It remained unclear whether the aircraft collided or crashed separately.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 James Oliphant, an aviation safety officer at the base, said the aviators’ colleagues have halted further activity as they analyze and grieve the tragedy.
“Right now the organization will stand down to begin the healing process,” Oliphant said.
Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said the airmen’s remains were taken to Madigan Army Medical Center, and officials were still notifying their families as of Tuesday afternoon. The victims’ names will not be made public until 24 hours after family notification.
The aircraft involved were OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, often called scout helicopters. The single-engine, four-bladed aircraft are used for armed reconnaissance.
Oliphant said the airmen were on a routine night training flight, but he did not know specifically what they were doing before the crash. The weather was clear when Oliphant arrived to the scene late Monday. He wasn’t sure whether the helicopters had collided, but he said they left a wide debris field, with most of it spreading across a 300-meter area.
“With moving aircraft, there could be debris anywhere throughout the woods,” he said. Additional military vehicles arrived Tuesday to help secure the scene.
The helicopters went down a couple miles from the community of Rainier, which is south of Tacoma. The Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., will lead the overall investigation into the accident, and a six-person team was expected to arrive Tuesday night and begin work Wednesday morning.
That investigation could take several months or up to a year, Oliphant said.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord is one of the largest bases in the country, with about 100,000 military and civilian personnel. In December 2006, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from Fort Lewis crashed southeast of Seattle during a night training mission, killing all three aboard.
“One loss is one too many,” Dangerfield said. “Any time you lose a soldier, it’s like losing a brother or a sister. It hurts.”