Thirteen years ago today, a little over a year before I returned to the MIA mission, a Mi-17 crashed in the Vietnamese central province of Quang Binh killing seven Americans and nine Vietnamese passengers and crew conducting search and recovery advance work for the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting. I personally knew two of the Americans who were onboard the helicopter and miss their friendship still.
Thirteen years is a long time, but it doesn't seem that long ago since the crash. Everyone on that helicopter was on a noble mission to search for those missing from the Vietnam War, and though they might not have known their fate that day when they stepped onto the helicopter, I think everyone who takes a ride like that takes at least a second to ponder what lies ahead.
Below is an article I found online describing the incident. It was a tragedy I hope never happens again, and I take this time to extend my appreciation for the men, both American and Vietnamese, and their families for their sacrifice that day.
Saturday April 7 11:01 PM ET
16 Die in Vietnam Helicopter Crash
By DAVID THURBER, Associated Press Writer
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - A helicopter carrying a team searching for Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War crashed into a mountain Saturday, killing 16 people, including seven Americans.
The Russian-made MI-17 made unusual swinging movements in the air and slammed into a hillside near Thanh Tranh village in Quang Binh province's Bo Tranh district, about 280 miles south of Hanoi, local officials said.
Vietnamese officials initially reported 20 people were on board the helicopter, but changed the figure to 16 early Sunday, in line information from U.S. officials. Pentagon (news - web sites) spokesman in Washington, Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, said seven Americans and nine Vietnamese were killed in the crash. There were no survivors.
U.S. officials said the American victims were military service people, but were withholding their names until the next of kin have been notified. The cause of the mid-afternoon crash is being investigated. The sky was hazy at the time.
Local authorities began recovering the bodies early Sunday. U.S. Embassy spokesman David Monk said that U.S. officials were on their way to the site.
Monk said the team was making a preliminary visit to a possible MIA recovery site to determine whether it was worth excavating.
The U.S. military's Pacific Command said in a statement on its website that the team was ``preparing for a recovery operation involving unaccounted for Americans lost during the Vietnam war.''
A spokesman for the command in Honolulu, Lt. Sean Kelly, said the service members killed were all on a mission for Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, a group based in Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii that investigates Americans missing from the Vietnam War.
The task force has searched for remains from the Indochina War in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and southern China since 1992, and in recent years has expanded operations to include World War II and Korean War MIA recovery cases.
President Bush (news - web sites) expressed his condolences on Saturday and urged Americans to ``remember their sacrifice.''
``The families of the service personnel lost in today's tragic accident know better than most the contribution their loved ones made in bringing closure to scores of families across America,'' the president said in a statement issued at the White House.
``Today's loss is a terrible one for our nation,'' Bush said.
There are currently no large-scale MIA excavations under way in Vietnam, but some Americans remain in the country year-round doing advance work for future digs.
Since 1973, the remains of 591 American servicemen formerly listed as unaccounted for have been identified and returned to their families. There are 1,992 Americans still unaccounted for from the war in Southeast Asia, including 1,498 in Vietnam.
The United States spends $5 million to $6 million annually on MIA recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Quang Binh province, where the accident occurred, was the southernmost province of North Vietnam during the war, just north of the former demilitarized zone. It contains many military crash sites because it was heavily bombed during the war.
The Joint Task Force-Full Accounting program was set up by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (news - web sites) in 1992.
Its teams conduct preliminary investigations of crash sites to determine whether they should be excavated. Based on their findings, sites are prepared for excavation under a schedule agreed upon by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments.
Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, a spokesman for the program, said those killed were the advance team for a 95-member team that was scheduled to leave Hawaii in late April for six separate recovery sites in Vietnam. He said they were members of the military.
The program makes about 10 such deployments per year, each lasting about a month. The terrain is rugged and often littered with debris from the war.
``Every mission is a dangerous mission,'' Childress said. ``It's a very difficult area to operate in.''
No decision has been made yet if that mission will go on as scheduled, Childress said. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a statement that the overall mission to account for the MIAs and recover their remains will continue.
Childress said the helicopter was from the Vietnamese military and the pilot was Vietnamese.
``We've been flying in this type of helicopter for a number of years, and this is the first accident,'' he said.