WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said Thursday there were no signs that a U.S. military tanker plane that crashed Wednesday in Pakistan was brought down by hostile action.
The plane - a KC-130 used for in-flight refueling or hauling cargo - crashed into a mountain in Pakistan, killing all seven Marines aboard, the Pentagon said. It was the worst U.S. casualty toll from the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The crash occurred late Wednesday night local time, and a search-and-rescue mission continued into Thursday morning. The Pentagon identified the dead Marines shortly before midnight (05:00 GMT) in Washington.
The plane crashed as it approached a military airfield called Shamsi in southwestern Pakistan. That air base is about 290 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to U.S. Central Command.
Witnesses reported seeing flames shooting from the plane before it slammed into the mountain.
A Central Command spokesman, Maj. Ralph Mills, said Marines and Pakistanis had approached the crash site, but no bodies had been recovered as of late Wednesday.
"We made it to the crash site on foot," Mills said. "But they were unable to remain there. It is a very steep grade and they were unable to get footing. The site is secure."
The Pentagon identified the seven Marines who were killed as: The pilot, Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft, 29, of Shasta, California; co-pilot Capt. Daniel G. McCollum, 29, of Richland, South Carolina; Gunnery Sgt. Stephen L. Bryson, 36, of Montgomery, Alabama; Staff Sgt. Scott N. Germosen, 37, of New York City; Sgt. Nathan P. Hays, 21, of Lincoln, Washington, Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Bertrand, 23, of Coos Bay, Oregon; and Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, 25, of Du Page, Illinois. All were based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California.
Winters is the first woman among U.S. forces killed since the war in Afghanistan began on October 7.
Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Pakistan and the surrounding region, said the four-engine KC-130 Hercules took off from Jacobabad, Pakistan, and was making multiple stops.
President George W. Bush said the crash was a reminder of how serious the times are today.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the soldiers," Bush said at a fund-raiser for the re-election of his brother Jeb as governor of Florida. "But I want to remind them that the cause that we are now engaged in is just and noble. The cause is freedom and this nation will not rest until we've achieved our objective."
In a brief exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know the circumstances of the crash or whether the KC-130 was on a refueling mission.
"I'm going to wait for the investigation to be completed," he said. "We've got some folks heading up there now."
"It is a tough, dangerous business over there," he added. "They're doing difficult things and they're doing them darned well, and it just breaks your heart."
A journalist, Saeed Malangzai, who lives about 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the crash site, said the plane went down in mountains in southern Balochistan province.
Residents saw flames from the burning plane before it crashed into the Lundi mountains, Malangzai said. Pakistani troops encircled the area, he added.
The KC-130 is a $ 37 million plane routinely used by the Marine Corps for in-flight refueling of helicopters. It is also used for troop and cargo delivery, evacuation missions and special operations support. It normally carries a six-man crew of two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer, mechanic and loadmaster.
The only other fatal crash of a U.S. military aircraft during the war in Afghanistan, which began October 7, was an Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Pakistan on October 19, killing two Army Rangers.