The helicopter crash in the western Iraqi desert yesterday was the deadliest single event in the Iraq war for U.S. troops, and officials said it dealt a particularly hard blow to a small military community in Hawaii, which had already seen 18 Marines die in Iraq since late October.
The Marines were withholding the identities of the 31 troops who died in the crash outside Rutbah, in Iraq's Anbar province near the Syrian border, pending notification of relatives. But several congressional offices said yesterday that the CH-53E "Super Stallion" helicopter's four crew members were based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, and that many or all of the remaining 27 troops were stationed at the Marine base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
U.S. military officials said the large transport helicopter crashed at about 1:20 a.m. during regular security operations but declined to release details. Thirty Marines and one Navy sailor died, according to military spokesmen in Iraq. One defense official said an initial report from the crash indicated a severe sandstorm that might have disoriented the pilot, but investigators were considering the weather, mechanical problems and enemy fire.
"I was contacted by the United States Marine Corps this morning and informed that 27 of the 31 Marines tragically killed in last night's accident were from Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. I am stunned that so many lives were lost in a single incident. . . . We are particularly feeling the effects of the war in Hawaii."
Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) said the Marine Corps notified his office of the casualties yesterday.
"It has been a very tragic week not just for the military overall, but for Hawaii because we are an ohana, which is Hawaiian for family," Case said. "The military and civilian population of Hawaii has a very close tie, a very deep and broad support for our military."
Hawaii's military community has had a consistent role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 29th Separate Infantry Brigade, the largest unit in Hawaii's Army National Guard, is preparing to deploy to Iraq. Active-duty forces from Schofield Barracks are scheduled to redeploy, and Marines from the base in Kaneohe have been serving in Iraq with the First Marine Division, headquartered at Camp Pendleton in California.
Capt. Christopher Perrine, a spokesman for the Marine base in Hawaii, said there was a memorial service there two weeks ago for 10 Marines killed in Iraq. Seven Marines from a Kaneohe unit died on Oct. 30 during fighting in Fallujah. Perrine declined to discuss the helicopter crash.
Near the sprawling base, which sits on the blue expanse of Kaneohe Bay, Marines and spouses worried and waited for official news. Two servicemen -- one wearing a black glove covering burns he received in Iraq -- sat outside the Muddy Water coffee shop. "We're not saying anything until the families are notified," one said, declining to give his name. "That's the right thing to do. Those were our guys."
At the Naval Credit Union near the base, Elsa Martin, a Navy wife whose husband has been deployed since November, said: "I try not to watch the news while he's over there; it's just too hard."
Six other U.S. troops died in Iraq yesterday, the deadliest day for the U.S. military since the war began. The crash came days before scheduled Iraq elections, a time that U.S. commanders had predicted would be turbulent. Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military expert with the Brookings Institution, said the crash might complicate the Bush administration's message that things are looking up.
"When you start talking casualties, the simplest point to remember is that Americans will tolerate them if they think the mission is important and has a chance to be successful," O'Hanlon said. "Americans continue to see the problem with this war is that there's no sign that we're winning. Casualties do really cause some level of political risk."
Special correspondent Sally Apgar in Hawaii contributed to this report.