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Mud hinders crash probe

UNADILLA, Ga. — Military officials battled slick, muddy conditions Sunday as they worked to recover the remains of 21 National Guard personnel killed when their twin-engine C-23 Sherpa crashed in a field in heavy rain.

Officials weren't sure how long the recovery would take because of deep mud in the area, which has had nearly 4 inches of rain over the weekend.

"It's a quagmire," said Lt. Col. Deborah Bertrand, a Robins Air Force Base spokeswoman.

Three Army personnel and 18 Air National Guard members were killed when the transport plane crashed Saturday morning south of Macon and burst into flame.

Officials said there were two debris fields: one 400-feet-by-400-feet and a smaller one about a quarter-mile away. On Sunday, skies were overcast and winds were strong as about 150 workers searched slowly through the wreckage.

"They're far more concerned with safety at this point than speed," said Maj. Randy Noller, spokesman in National Guard Bureau in Washington. "Slippery mud makes it a relatively dangerous site."

The bodies will be taken to an Air Force casualty center in Dover, Del.

In-flight data and voice recorders have been found, but investigators don't know yet if they were working, said Col. Dan Woodward, an Air Force spokesman.

Officials have not determined the cause of the crash, which is being investigated by the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., with the help of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Air Force officials escorted reporters and photographers past dozens of muddy all-terrain vehicles and Humvees Sunday to a command post about a half-mile from the main crash site. The area could be reached only by a dirt road marked by gullies carved by the heavy weekend rains. Water stood in ditches and fields that had been plowed 3 feet deep in preparation for spring planting.

The plane, assigned to the Florida National Guard's 171st Aviation Battalion in Lakeland, took off without any problems from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, said Air Force Capt. Carol Kanode, a field spokeswoman. The aircraft was headed to

Oceana Naval Air Station, Va.

All 18 Air National Guardsmen were members of a Virginia-based military construction and engineering crew on a routine training mission. The plane's pilot and two other crew members were members of the Florida battalion.

"Military service involves great danger, in times of peace as well as war, and this accident provides stark proof of that," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfield said Sunday in a statement.

In Virginia, Gov. Jim Gilmore ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Families and friends of the 18 passengers — all members of the 203rd Red Horse Unit of the National Guard — were gathered at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

"It's a real bad situation when everyone on that list is someone that you knew," said Angelo Holley, 36, a member of the 203rd. Staff Sgt. Ronald Elkin, one of the victims, was one of his closest friends.

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On the Net:

Air National Guard: www.ang.af.mil