Updated at 7:45 p.m. Feb. 23, 2012
Six Camp Pendleton-based Marines and a seventh stationed in Arizona were killed when two helicopters collided during a nighttime training exercise on the outskirts of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, military officials announced Thursday.
The AH-1W "Cobra" and UH-1 "Huey'" aircraft went down about 8 p.m. Wednesday over a remote part of the Yuma Training Range Complex, according to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's public affairs office.
No one survived the midair crash, which happened in a section of the installation that extends into the far southeastern reaches of California, near the Chocolate Mountains. The casualties were members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, which is based at MCAS Miramar. Two Marines were aboard the Cobra, and five in the Huey.
The identities of the deceased Marines were withheld pending family notification. Public release of the names was expected to be on hold until at least Friday afternoon, according to Lt. Maureen Dooley, a spokeswoman for the 3rd MAW.
The military will conduct an "intensive investigation" into the cause of the crash over the next few months, Dooley said.
Speaking to reporters, Col. Robert Kuckuk, commanding officer of MCAS Yuma, said preliminary information about the "tremendous tragedy" at his base was inconclusive.
"Exactly what happened during this particular operation, I don't know," he said. "Was it a live-fire exercise? I don't know, except that I know that they were carrying ordnance."
Kuckuk said training in the part of the station where the accident occurred — a locale he described as "an excellent simulation for both Iraq and Afghanistan'' — would continue as investigators work to determine what caused the collision.
"The Marine Corps ... will find out exactly what happened,'' he told news crews. "If we can take steps to prevent it from happening again, we most certainly will.''
The colonel noted that the duties of military air crews are unavoidably hazardous at times, even during training and despite exhaustive safety measures.
"We understand ... that this is sometimes a dangerous profession," Kuckuk said. "We ... accept that despite our best efforts, that sometimes we're going to have accidents, and in those accidents, sometimes people are injured and killed.''
The sole Arizona-stationed casualty was one of the two pilots of the helicopters, according to a Yuma-based Marine gunnery sergeant interviewed by KNX Newsradio.
The 3rd MAW trains in Yuma on a weekly basis, Dooley said.
Churches near military bases regularly help families deal with stressful deployments and are poised to react to sudden tragedies. Much of the is made of Camp Pendleton families and they are no strangers to horrific news. Last year, a military member of the congregation died in a crash, he said and worshippers came together.
Rev. Adam Smith told Patch that congregations do that by being available to mourners.
"Whenever we hear about these things we pray for people and we're willing to help and talk to anyone who is struggling with these things," he said. "We try to be supportive of the military."
Among the public figures offering condolences over the deadly military aviation accident were Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad.
Boxer said her "thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these brave Marines who died in this tragic accident. We honor their service and all they have done for our country.''
Bilbray said the accident served as "a solemn reminder that the price our service members pay to protect our freedom doesn't just happen overseas during war.''
"The training to prepare our men and women for combat can be just as dangerous,'' he said. "This is a reality that our service members accept as part of their job. Our job as civilians is to never take their sacrifice for granted.''
Over the last several years, accidents involving the same types of helicopters have claimed the lives of more than a dozen military personnel, most of them based in the San Diego area.
On Oct. 26, 2009, four Camp Pendleton-based Marines were killed when the helicopters they were in collided over southern Afghanistan. Cpl. Gregory M.W. Fleury, 23, and Capt. Eric A. Jones, 29, were in a Huey that crashed into a Cobra carrying David S. Mitchell, 30, and Kyle R. Van De Giesen, 29.
Four days later, a Camp Pendleton-based Cobra collided in flight with a Sacramento-based U.S. Coast Guard C-130 search plane near San Clemente Island, killing two Marines aboard the Cobra and seven Coast Guard members. Three separate military probes concluded there was no single factor that caused the crash.
More recently, a Marine pilot and his co-pilot were killed when their Cobra helicopter went down at Camp Pendleton on Sept. 19 during a training exercise, killing Capt. Jeffrey Bland, 37, and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann, 27. The crash sparked a brush fire that blackened about 120 acres near Fallbrook.
In July, USMC Sgt. Trevor Cook, 25, was killed and five other Marines were injured when a Huey helicopter went down in a hilly area in the northwestern reaches of Camp Pendleton, sparking a small brush fire that was quickly extinguished.
Correction: A past version of this article incorrectly stated that all the Marines were stationed at Camp Pendleton. Six of them were based here, while the seventh was based in Yuma.
– City News Service and Camp Pendleton Patch editor Daniel Woolfolk contributed to this report.