WPFD assists with military plane crash search

Staff Writer

West Point Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne and firefighters Lantz Stewart and Heath Donahoo assisted in the search and recovery after the plane crash that killed 15 Marines and one Navy Sailor on July 10 near Itta Bena.

Wilbourne said he, Stewart and Donahoo were called to help with the search as part of Task Force 2. They left West Point at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning to assist with the search.

Wilbourne said at the site, they were split up in teams made up of 20 to 25 fire fighters, police officers, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks officers, highway patrol officers and Marine Explosive Ordinance Detail to assist if any explosives were found. The teams spread out and walked in straight lines to search for any debris, such as weapons, explosives and other supplies, or bodies of victims of the crash.

“We were searching the plane’s five mile radius debris field,” he said. “We were searching soybean fields, sunflower fields and woods for debris and personnel from the plane. It was hot and there were a lot of mosquitos.”

He said the crash site was in two areas on both sides of Highway 82 around four miles away from Itta Bean in the Berclair community.

Wilbourne said he and the other firefighters were not aware they would be searching for victims of the crash until they arrived on the scene.

He said during the search, members of their team located the body of last missing victim in a wooded area near the crash site.

“We knew we were on a mission,” he said. “It was sad when we found the sixteenth victim, but we were relieved because he could be taken home to his family. The fifteen others had already been located, and he was taken to be with them.”

He said when the body was found, it was taken from the crash site by helicopter to be with the rest of the victims to prepare for their funerals.

Wilbourne said civilians do not typically assist with military operations such as this one, but everyone worked well together.

“It was a sad but successful trip,” he said. “We accomplished together what we set out to do.”

Wilbourne said after all the bodies of the victims were recovered, the search continued for the remaining weapons and supplies that were also on board the plane when it crashed.

“They are now using bomb sniffing dogs to locate the rest of the munitions,” Wilbourne said.

He said the Marines had taken over the continuing search operation, and did not expect Task Force 2 to assist anymore.