July 11, 2017 / 12:09 PM / 11 days ago

Sixteen service members killed in U.S. military plane crash

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FILE PHOTO: Two U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters receive fuel from a KC-130 Hercules over the Gulf of Aden January 1, 2003. U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials were investigating on Tuesday the cause of a military transport plane crash that killed 16 service members a day earlier, leaving a five-mile trail of wreckage in rural northern Mississippi.

The KC-130 Hercules aircraft disappeared from air traffic control radar over Mississippi after taking off from Cherry Point, North Carolina. It plunged into a field at approximately 4 p.m. CDT (5 p.m. EST) on Monday in Mississippi's LeFlore County, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Jackson, the state capital.

Fifteen Marines and one Navy sailor were onboard, the U.S. Marine Corps said. The names of the deceased were being withheld until family members were notified.

Further details on the crash were not released by military officials, but Gen. Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, pledged "a thorough investigation into the cause of this tragedy."

The aircraft was originally based out of New York's Stewart Air National Guard Base, Marine Corps officials said.

It was en route to a Navy facility in El Centro, California, transporting equipment and people. Equipment on board included small arms ammunition and personal weapons.

A KC-130 Hercules with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 (Rein.), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepares to refuel a CH-53E Super Stallion during air refueling training in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, March 14, 2013. Picture taken March 14, 2013 U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John Robbart III/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the crash was heartbreaking. "Melania and I send our deepest condolences to all!" he wrote.

Images posted online by local media showed the plane's crumpled wreckage engulfed in flames in a field surrounded by tall vegetation, with a large plume of smoke in the sky.

The crash left a five-mile (8-km) trail of debris, the local Clarion-Ledger newspaper reported.

Local authorities urged people who are not emergency responders to avoid the area because of fuel on the ground. The Marine Corps said it had sent an explosive disposal team to the scene as a precaution.

The KC-130 Hercules is used for air-to-air refueling, to carry cargo and perform tactical passenger missions. It is operated by three crew members and can carry 92 ground troops or 64 paratroopers, according to a U.S. Navy website.

The Greenwood Fire Department chief, Marcus Banks, told the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper in LeFlore County that 4,000 gallons of foam were used to extinguish the wreckage. Firefighters were at one point driven back, he added, by several "high-intensity explosions" that may have been caused by ammunition igniting.

Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Idrees Ali in Washington D.C. and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernard Orr and Letitia Stein

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