'This is the job we do': Columbus firefighters head to Leflore Co. to aid search, recovery at military plane crash site

July 13, 2017 9:51:39 AM

Isabelle Altman - [email protected]


Before dawn this morning, eight Columbus firefighters were on the road to Leflore County. Their mission: to aid with search and recovery efforts for the military plane that crashed in the Delta Monday. 


The eight Columbus Fire and Rescue workers, along with three more from the West Point Fire Department, are part of a regional task force that aids with overland search, rescue and recovery efforts around the state in the event of disasters both natural and man-made. 


The New York-based KC-130T Marine tanker that crashed west of Greenwood Monday was carrying 15 Marines and one Navy corpsman on its way to Arizona when it exploded. All 16 people were killed. 


Nine of the Marines on the aircraft were from Orange County, New York, while the other seven were based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. 


Wreckage from the plane is scattered on either side of Mississippi Highway 82, according to reports. Though many of the bodies have been recovered, national news sources cite dense vegetation and, just after the crash, explosions, as hindering first responders and recovery teams during search and recovery efforts. 


"We really don't know exactly what our mission is right now," Engineer Chris Carter said Wednesday afternoon as he and other CFR personnel prepared the command center for the trip to Leflore County. "We've just been instructed to be on location at a specific time, and we'll get mission briefing and everything like that once we get on-site. We really have no idea. We're preparing for overland search and rescue and for any communications assets that may be needed for on-scene personnel." 


Carter is a communications member who has been with CFR five years -- about the same length of time he's been a member of the Army National Guard. He feels a kinship with the military personnel who lost their lives in the crash. 


"Those are my brothers and sisters," he said. "... I want to get them home. That's the honor they deserve for the sacrifice they made." 


Task Force 2 is one of three regional task forces of first responders in the state deployed to disasters, most of them weather-related. 


"As with other members of the regional task force, the firefighters in Columbus are specifically trained in overland search," CFR Assistant Chief Duane Hughes said. "So they know how to walk police lines, they know how to call in land grid coordinates when they find something significant. We also cross train with members of human remains recovery teams, such as the cadaver dogs, so we're familiar. Those have been requested from Lowndes County also. It's something we've done quite often in the past, with the severe weather events in Yazoo City, Smithville, here recently Louisville."  


CFR's communications command center was specifically requested. Carter and Capt. Damon Estes, a member of the search and rescue team, called the command center their "home away from home" during the mission. The center is equipped with an advanced radio and other communication technology to stay in contact with other agencies aiding in recovery. 


"We can talk to just about any radio system in the state," Carter said. "... That's our goal, to be able to come in and bring a task force to that affected area and have communications with that home town that is affected and be able to talk with them." 


While Carter and Engineer Kirk Gayle will on the radio with other agencies, Estes and five other team members will be out doing the actual searching -- most likely, he and Carter added, as they didn't have their official mission details yet. 


"I'm the guy that walks around in a field looking for stuff," Estes said.  


The firefighters don't know how long they will be in Leflore County, but the team always prepares for a minimum of two days, Hughes said.  


"A lot of it is you're just trying to support the families and ... all those that are affected," Estes said. "Sometimes we have people in situations (where) we can help them, and other times we're helping the families. That's definitely what we keep in mind." 


"This is what we train for," Carter agreed. "...This is the job we do."